Faced with a sharp drop in enrollment, the religious kibbutz movement is considering closing its yeshiva on Kibbutz Ein Tzurim, Nechemia Rappel, the new head of the movement, said Tuesday.
This year only 10 students registered to study at the yeshiva, compared to previous enrollment rates of between 30 and 50.
"There is nothing in the religious kibbutz movement's charter of values that obligates us to have a yeshiva," said Rappel, who replaced Yair Reinman last week.
"Kibbutz members will continue to learn Torah whether we have a yeshiva or not."
Sources close to Ein Tzurim told The Jerusalem Post that Rappel was less willing than his predecessor to help the yeshiva cover its chronic budget deficits, which have reached approximately NIS 1 million annually in recent years.
The yeshiva on Kibbutz Ein Tzurim, located between Ashkelon and Kiryat Malachi, was established in the late 1970s. In the mid-80s, the yeshiva launched the first-ever religious pre-military program, known as the "Shiluv" [integration] that combined intensive Torah studies with full three-year army service.
Until the creation of the Shiluv, the only option for religious high school graduates who wanted to combine Torah studies with army service was the five-year hesder yeshiva track, which included a reduced 18-month army service.
However, the religious kibbutz movement opposed the hesder track on ideological grounds. The ideologues of the movement argued that being religious did not entitle soldiers to shortened military service.
For two decades, the yeshiva enjoyed popularity especially among more left-wing, religiously committed youth.
Due to Ein Tzurim's popularity, in the early 1990s another Shiluv yeshiva was established on Kibbutz Ma'aleh Gilboa, which overlooks the Jezreel Valley.
However, in recent years under the leadership of Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, Ein Tzurim has suffered from falling enrollments.
Part of the reason for Ein Tzurim's troubles, said Rappel, is tied to a general trend among religious Zionist youth, especially after the disengagement from Gaza, to prefer more religious, right-wing Torah institutions.
According to figures supplied by the Union of Hesder Yeshivot, this year there was a 10% rise in enrollment in the hesder yeshivot.
There was an identical rise in the number of high school graduates who requested an indefinite postponement of their army service while they pursued Torah studies for two or more years.
In contrast, according to the Union of Pre-military Academies, enrollment rates at religious pre-military academies, which are considered more religiously moderate than hesder yeshivot, has remained static.
Ein Tzurim, which is considered even more moderate than the pre-military academies, has suffered most from this move to the right among religious Zionist youth.
Ein Tzurim's novelty is its attempt to integrate seemingly contradictory elements.
In addition to combining a full three years of army service with two years of yeshiva study, the Shiluv program also attempts to bring together lecturers with strong secular academic backgrounds with educators from the yeshiva world.
Meanwhile, the trend in many hesder yeshivot and pre-military academies has been to take a cautious, enclavist stance vis-Ã -vis the academic world.
But Rappel said that he has no intention of radically changing the character of the yeshiva.
"We believe in the value of integrating Torah with the real world. I'm concerned about the trend toward haredization that has swept over the religious Zionist world, the tendency to close itself off into a ghetto.
"But the religious kibbutz movement still believes in being fully engaged in the mundane without losing touch with the spiritual."
"It's a tough road to take. But it can be done," he said.