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This past Sunday (Jan. 14) marked the 30th day (shloshim) since the passing of Rabbi Yehoshua Yagel, 91, co-founder of Midrashiat Noam in Pardess Hanna. As the head of the yeshiva for half a century, Rabbi Yagel (pronounced Yogel) touched the lives of some 6,000 graduates in a profound way, beyond the years that they attended the school. After his retirement, he continued to serve as rabbi and educator, admired by his many students.
Midrashiat Noam, or 'the Midrashia,' was considered for decades a flagship of religious-Zionist education. Its graduates became part of the fabric of Israeli society, among them former ministers Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, Rabbi Benny Elon and Prof. Ya'akov Ne'eman; journalists Haim Zisowitz, Yair Sheleg and Adam Baruch; and Labor Party Secretary-General Eitan Cabel. Other graduates made great strides in the Torah world, becoming educators and heads of yeshivas, including Merkaz Harav's Rabbi Elisha Vishlitzki and Rabbi Eliyahu Blum, head of the Nehardea Hesder Yeshiva in Nahariya.
Unlike today, when the options of yeshiva high schools can be overwhelming, in the 1940s schools were either secular high schools or full-fledged yeshivas. Many parents felt the yeshivas' curricula were too heavy for their sons, and searched for a framework with both serious Torah studies and general subjects.
Rabbi Yagel described in an essay he wrote in the Hebrew anthology One Hundred Years of Religious-Zionist Education, recently published by the World Mizrahi Movement: "In the early 1940s Yisrael Sadan together with Michael Tzur founded the Mizrahi Youth movement, known as Noar Mizrahi or by its acronym NOAM. Sadan's vision was to strengthen the religious identity of Mizrahi members. The focus was on religious values, and a few years before its founding, Sadan wrote that the Midrashia's main purpose would be 'to serve as an educational Torah institution where its members will be trained in Torah and mitzvot'."
But from the outset it was clear that the new school would include general studies. The Midrashia's charter states: The Midrashia will enable its students to acquire Torah studies in a yeshiva framework and also general studies which help the Torah student to become influential in private and public domains.'
The Midrashia was founded in 1945 by Rabbi Yagel and Yisrael Sadan (who passed away 11 years ago this month). According to the Midrashia's director-general Avi Korngut, "One of the reasons that it is located in Pardess Hanna is because the annual seminars of the Noar Mizrahi took place here. In the initial years, most students were members of Noar Mizrahi, but over the years more students came from all strata of Israeli society, including many from the periphery."
Throughout his life Rabbi Yagel bridged the gaps between the haredi and religious-Zionist worlds. Born in Poland, he came to Israel as a youth after studying with such luminaries as Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman and Rabbi Aharon Kotler. In the Holy Land he studied at Merkaz Harav Yeshiva and enlisted into the pre-state Hagana militia. He also studied law and economics. In the early 1940s he taught at the Yishuv Hachadash Yeshiva of Rabbi Amiel. He was a student of leading Torah authority Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karlitz - known as the Chazon Ish.
Rabbi Yagel founded Midrashiat Noam after receiving the blessing of the Chazon Ish. The term "midrashiya" (from the Hebrew verb 'to learn') was chosen to differentiate it from a "yeshiva" focusing on Torah studies.
Attending Midrashiat Noam was often part of a family tradition - as it was for the Orlansky brothers who grew up in Petah Tikva. Aharon graduated 13 years before his brother Reuven. Today, Professor Reuven Or is a senior physician in the Bone Marrow Transplantation Dept. of Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital and an expert in cancer immunotherapy.
An earlier family connection to Rabbi Yagel followed some years after the 1929 Hebron massacre. Or's grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Ya'akov Orlansky, was murdered with his daughter on a bloody Shabbat. A daughter who survived married Hebron yeshiva student Rabbi Yekutiel Azrieli, who later served as the rabbi of Zichron Ya'akov for nearly sixty years. "Zichron is near Pardess Hanna, so Rabbi Azrieli became close to Rabbi Yagel and was also involved in the Midrashia's development. His two sons studied there. Rabbi Yagel opened horizons for his students. He was creative," recalls Or, a graduate in the 1960s. "He was unique. On one hand he was a profound Torah scholar, while on the other hand he taught us to use our creativity. He gave every student a chance, and the student felt he could develop in the direction of his choice. He would see creativity in whichever way the student developed, whether he continued to learn Torah or studied something else."
According to Or, Rabbi Yagel deeply admired his classmate, the late Israel Air Force navigator Major Aharon Katz, who fell in the [first] Lebanon War in 1982. Katz was a Torah scholar and senior officer years before religious officers started to climb the ranks in the IDF. "Rabbi Yagel said of him that 'aviation is also Torah.' There were no barriers between the various worlds."
Or met the rabbi repeatedly throughout the years. "He was a walking encyclopedia about each student, remembering many details," he says.
Attorney Raz Nizri, a more recent graduate (1990), is the senior assistant to Attorney-General Menahem (Menny) Mazuz. In the position for five years, he previously worked with Mazuz's predecessor Elyakim Rubinstein. "I came from Ma'alot where there were no yeshivas in the area," Nizri recalls. "With its high educational standards, the Midrashia was considered prestigious for both Torah and secular studies."
Nizri says that the rabbi didn't have to learn theories - he lived them.
Although Yagel was over 70 when Nizri attended the school, he was admired for his rapport with his young charges. "We saw Rabbi Yagel as a great Torah scholar whose Torah classes had a flavor of yeshivas of yore. In addition to his erudition, he was an outstanding educator who embodied educational theories in his persona," says Nizri.
The Midrashia accepted students from all backgrounds. "It was known as the 'melting pot of religious intelligence.' We internalized that even when we opt for professions we are connected to the Torah," explains Nizri, adding that most of the rabbis were haredi, yet there was openness to various viewpoints. The Midrashia years were important for Nizri's identity - he continued to Merkaz Harav, the Golan Hesder Yeshiva and an MA from Bar Ilan University's Law Faculty with studies in its Kollel.
"Rabbi Yagel was involved with each student during his school years and after," says Korngut, a graduate of 1973. "He attended every graduate's wedding, which accounted for about 100 weddings a year throughout Israel. He assisted graduates injured in the wars, showing genuine concern for them and others in need."
Nowadays, graduates reciprocate this concern for the Midrashia, which has recently gone through hard times. "After Rabbi Yagel left, the transition between the generations was not smooth and a vacuum was created," explains Korngut, who now works in hi-tech.
"We are now working to restore the Midrashia to its former glory. This restructuring includes developing a new curriculum and renovating the premises," he says.
Only the senior class (12th graders) now study in the Midrashia. Korngut is optimistic about the school being ready to accept students from ninth grade in time for the academic year, beginning in September 2008. "We have already succeeded in making changes, due to the great effort of many graduates who care about continuing the Midrashia's uniqueness," says Korngut.
Rabbi Yagel is survived by his wife, a son, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He is buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem