When David Bigman was torn between pursuing a PhD in economics or intensive yeshiva study, he was invited to move to Israel and join a Bnei Akiva group helping a struggling kibbutz. He agreed to leave his academic pursuits behind and work in the fields. Eventually his intellectual and spiritual side caught up with him and took him on a path that would make him one of the most important rabbis of the religious kibbutz movement.
Since his youth, Bigman has been straddling worlds. When he was growing up in an integrated, inner-city Detroit neighborhood, the Bigman family had strong relationships with their African American neighbors, playing ball with them and even sharing Shabbat afternoon tea. During the 1967 riots, when the Bigmans were out of town, one of these neighbors went out and protected their house with a shotgun.
Bigman’s parents were strong Zionists and religiously observant, but they were independent thinkers. They were one of the few religious families that sent their kids to the community day school instead of the Orthodox one, because they wanted a high-quality education, and for their kids to learn “ivrit b’ivrit” (Hebrew immersion).
As a young teenager, Bigman desperately wanted to study in a yeshiva high school. It was already clear that he was an exceptionally gifted Torah student.
His parents agreed to send him to the Skokie Yeshiva outside Chicago, which was then under the educational direction of Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik. Soloveitchik shared many of the Bigmans’ core values, including Zionism, secular education, civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War.
Throughout his high-school years, Bigman was actively involved with Bnei Akiva, rising to the highest positions within the movement. After high school, he spent a year studying in Israel. He then returned to the States to pursue an academic degree in economics.
His parents encouraged him to study at Columbia University, but he decided against it when he realized he would not be able to study Torah more than 10 hours a week. He decided to study near home at Wayne State University, where he was able to devote a significant amount of time to studying in a local haredi yeshiva, with Rabbi Aryeh Bakst. Bigman continued to be active with Bnei Akiva throughout his college years.
Bigman was drawn to both Torah and economics. He sees the two fields as very similar, describing economics as the study of “abstract thought with the idea of doing something to make things better for people.”
As he was completing his BA, he contemplated pursuing a PhD in the subject. At the same time, Bakst was encouraging him to pursue higher yeshiva study. While weighing his options, he was approached by Bnei Akiva.
There was an effort to revive a kibbutz in northern Israel, and they were planning to send an American group to settle there and help them out. Bigman agreed to leave behind his academic aspirations and join this pioneering project.
In 1975, he moved to Israel and joined Kibbutz Ma’aleh Gilboa, where he worked in the fields.
Early on, the kibbutz asked Bigman to relate some words of Torah on Shabbat. When he spoke, the congregation was amazed. They asked him to speak again.
Eventually they suggested he go study for rabbinic ordination and return to be their rabbi.
In fact, Bigman was already functioning as the rabbi. People were regularly bringing him questions of Jewish law. Receiving ordination would just make him more proficient in what he was already doing. After two years of study, he officially became the kibbutz rabbi. As a member, he continued to work in the orchards and with the cows.
He also taught at a new women’s yeshiva that had been founded on nearby Kibbutz Ein Hanetziv, with the idea of giving women the same Torah education as men. Bigman was excited about this opportunity. As he points out, the core of today’s Judaism is the oral Torah, and women weren’t studying that.
“I don’t know if I’m a feminist, but we can’t deny half the population the main point of Judaism,” he says.
After his army service, Bigman was asked to teach at the Bnei Akiva Israel year program on Kibbutz Sde Eliahu. There, he met his wife, Ariella, a fellow staff member and a student of special education and Jewish thought at Hebrew University.
When Ariella joined Bigman on the kibbutz, she immediately became an integral part of the community. She was in charge of the extracurricular activities for youth, and she helped set up the children’s houses. She now teaches Talmud and Jewish thought at the local high school and middle school, which serve the religious kibbutzim and other communities in the area.
Bigman and his wife have raised six children, of whom they are very proud. The eldest has followed in the footsteps of both her parents, teaching Talmud to girls in high school and in a midrasha (seminary).
In 1993, a new yeshiva for the religious kibbutz movement was opened on Ma’aleh Gilboa by Rabbi Yehuda Gilead and Rabbi Shmuel Reiner. A year later, Bigman was asked to join them as the head of the yeshiva.
In many ways, the yeshiva is a reflection of what he has been doing all his life. Its emphasis on universal morality echoes his parents’ humanism and his experiences in the culturally diverse neighborhood of his youth. When he teaches, Bigman draws on his classical yeshiva training and his vast knowledge of general culture, creating an intellectually innovative and stimulating approach to Torah. Over the course of a class, he might quote from Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, author David Grossman and philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz.
His sense of civic responsibility is embodied in the yeshiva’s rigorous “Shiluv” program, which calls upon the students to serve a full three years in the army alongside their Torah studies.
Over the past 18 years, the yeshiva has flourished. With its success has come parallel growth on the kibbutz. At Ma’aleh Gilboa, Bigman combines all of his passions – serious Torah study, open-mindedness and a commitment to “doing something to make things better for people.”