Ultra-Orthodox Israel's summer vacation has hardly begun and its toll is already unbearable.
First, last Thursday, 20-year-old Zvika Miller of Netanya died of dehydration in the Judean Desert's Tze'elim Creek, one of the country's lowest, hottest and baldest hiking destinations. The following day a 15-year-old yeshiva boy died in the Upper Galilee after several hours of walking in Wadi Amud. Local rangers said he and his friends planned a trek well beyond their abilities, culminating in a hike from the Kinneret all the way up to Mt. Meron. They never even made it to the lake. Two days later, four yeshiva boys had to be rescued from the same place after dehydrating there.
On Sunday, dereliction reached a new peak when several yeshiva boys, as a prank, called a rescue helicopter to the See'on Creek, where hiking is forbidden due to its proximity to the Syrian and Lebanese borders. Monday an 18-year-old yeshiva boy from Bnei Brak drowned at the Kinneret's Mehadrin Beach. Add it all up, and you feel an urge to scold ultra-Orthodoxy's youths for their aloofness, irresponsibility and audacity.
Well spare the diatribe. The yeshiva boys taking to the fields may be derelict, but at the end of the day theirs is a long-overdue vote by the feet against ultra-Orthodoxy's most sacred value: the self-siege.
ANYONE WHO has been to the army, a summer camp or even just a family trip of the sort secular families routinely enjoy should know better than to just barge unprepared, uninformed and unequipped into some of the world's hottest areas, in the middle of the summer of all times, and for an ambitious hike of all things. So yes, it's a shame that come summertime ultra-Orthodox young adults, whose upbringing ignores the physical outdoors no less than it suspects the mental ones, often behave like unsupervised children as they finally burst in their thousands for a brief encounter with what lurks beyond the yeshiva's well-guarded walls.
THE RABBIS, who otherwise micro-manage these youths' every move, are somehow ineffective when it comes to their students' summertime escapades. Now, finally realizing they face a problem, they responded in the reflexive ultra-Orthodox way: prohibition. "The yeshiva boys," read an announcement that followed a meeting at Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv's house, "should use this time for its intended purpose, rest and strengthening the study of the sacred Torah, and not for... going on trips."
The ultra-Orthodox daily Hamodia concurred. "Hiking is a profession [miktzo'a]" it wrote, apparently using the wrong term for "skill." "Fortunately," continued the editorial, "yeshiva students are total ignoramuses when it comes to hiking."
Only someone who never climbed a mountain, slept under a canopy of stars, followed an eagle's dive through a canyon, smelled spring's blossoms, listened to a water spring's whisper and a waterfall's thunder can so idealize ignorance of hiking.
With such an attitude, it is no wonder yeshiva heads don't invite professional tour guides and medics to teach their students how to read a map, measure a hike's length and calculate the amount of water it requires, what to wear, what food to take and what to do in case of emergency. Such rabbinical initiative is imperative, if not because trekking through the Promised Land is a Jewish value, then at least because their students are going to hike anyhow, and their lives are at stake.
True, there were others who died here scandalously this summer, from a baby abandoned last week in a locked car in Sha'ar Ha'amakim to a French tourist who died Monday of sunstroke by Ein Gedi, not to mention Tzahi Basha, the teenager stabbed to death in an idiots' brawl over a girl in Rishon Lezion Saturday night.
Yet the ultra-Orthodox cases are different, because lurking behind them is a trend involving thousands, and because their deaths are so easily preventable.
TO UNDERSTAND the ultra-Orthodox rabbis' fear of their youths' quest to hike, one must read MK Meir Porush's acrobatic response to the demand that funding for ultra-Orthodox schools be conditioned on their teaching English and math.
After trying to change the subject to the secular system's flaws, which of course are numerous but also immaterial, and after nitpicking over the Hebrew term used for core-curriculum - liba - which comes from lev, or heart, thus ostensibly suggesting that math and English will now be more important than Judaism, Porush finally came to the point: "Only our rabbis can decide what is at the heart of what we teach."
Now Rabbi Porush, never mind that such a demand would be legitimate had your schools been financed by your rabbis and not by the Middle Israelis who, like any philanthropist, feel free to attach demands to their grants; just ask yourself why, actually, Middle Israelis want to equip your kids with some English and math, and what will happen the more you obstruct your youths' view of the world we inhabit.
Middle Israelis want your kids to learn math and English for the same reason that your youths go hiking, in disregard of their rabbis: They and we want to shorten the distance between them and the world. Increasingly, we meet them in cafes, restaurants, book stores, libraries, movie theaters, rock concerts and even stadiums, where they speak the same Hebrew slang the rest of us speak and generally share with us the public domain while retaining their identity.
It is this normalization process that also brings them to the wadis and mountaintops where the average ultra-Orthodox sage, like the proverbial Ghetto Jew, never went. And just as they are no longer ashamed to openly appreciate life, they will also seek the knowledge that will help them cease to depend on handouts and start living off their own work. It's a basic human ambition, and if you insist on standing in the way, you will find yourself shunted aside, not by us, but by your own children.
Zionist thinker Micah Joseph Berdichevski was put off by second-century Rabbi Ya'akov's warning, in Tractate Avot, not to interrupt Torah study even to praise a tree's beauty. To be redeemed, said Berdichevski, the Jews should rediscover beauty, nature and the entire universe of which they had been deprived by centuries of exile.
In its time this was impressive as a plea. Today it is good as a prediction. There can be no stopping ultra-Orthodox youths' embrace of nature, progress and modernity. The rabbis' only choice now is whether to be part of the problem, by still striving to cage their children, or part of the solution, by conceding that with or without them, the ghetto walls are being brought down - from within.