The next frontier

For the first time, students from weak backgrounds are becoming a legitimate part of the elitist hesder yeshivot framework.

Hesder (photo credit: Jerusalem Post staff)
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post staff)
After the Six Day War, it was Judea, Samaria and Gaza, where they were established to fortify Jewish presence. Since the mid-seventies, the focus of attention shifted toward Israel’s geographic periphery – Ma’alot and Kiryat Shmona in the North, Dimona and Yeroham in the South – which became some of the faraway locales that hosted diligent religious young men, and eventually their wives and children. In the nineties, a periphery of a different kind was marked, as hesder yeshivot were founded in Petah Tikva and Ramat Gan, to bring Torah to the hub of Israel’s secular culture.
The primal challenge that still underlies the hesder narrative, present since its inception in 1965, was to create diligent Torah scholars, without relinquishing the ideal of partaking in active military service. And since the transformation of Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh to the framework of the hesder (Hebrew for ‘arrangement’) two years before the Six Day War, those who combine over three-and-a-half years of Torah studying with less than a year-and-a half of military service have constantly been on the search for the next challenge.
The new frontier of 2010 is yet another periphery, this time Israel’s underprivileged populaces dwelling in geographically close but socio-economically remote cities, such as Lod, Ashkelon, or Holon. But the dramatic difference is that here it is not the hesder yeshivot that are going to the periphery; it is the periphery that is joining the yeshivot.
There are currently nearly 60 hesder yeshivot, of which nearly fifty are incorporated in the Hesder Union. Populating them are between 8,500-9,000 students in the various stages of the five-year program, which classically entails three years and eight months of Torah studies, and one year and four months of service in the IDF, divided into two segments.
Last November, the Union of Hesder Yeshivot and the military launched a new four-year hesder track composed, all-in-all, of two years of study and two years of service, in what is at once a beckon to draftees seeking meaningful army time, and a means for the IDF to counter its dwindling enlistment figures. The pilot took off at the Heichal Eliyahu yeshiva in Kochav Ya’akov with 20 students, and has been expanded since then to yeshivot in Ashkelon, Afula and Beit El. Nearly 100 students are currently in the first year of studies ahead of their two-year IDF service. Eitan Ozeri, head of the union, anticipates that between four to five hesder yeshivot will operate entirely in that format this upcoming year of studies.
“The program appeals to high school graduates from public religious schools from locales such as Ashkelon, Holon, and Haifa’s satellite towns, some of whom lack in motivation ahead of their military service and seek religious growth and reinforcement,” Ozeri told The Jerusalem Post, noting the immense challenge in following through the standard hesder learning regime of over three-and-a-half years. “They are drawn into the framework, and through Torah scholarship, their motivation for the military service and dedication to the State is also enhanced.” Ozeri added: “The yeshivot in Yerucham, Ma’alot and the like were founded to draw residents from the Center as well as Judea and Samaria to the periphery; the new yeshivot are aimed for the periphery, and appeal to the local populations.”
The new arrangement is called Shiluvim, a word connoting both the combination of Torah-study and army service, and the integration of the young men into the hesder sphere, which in essence embodies loyalty and dedication to the IDF, the State and to Israeli society, as Ozeri stressed.
“The new Shiluvim program came from the field; it reflects the desire of the communities,” Ozeri said, noting the significance to Israeli society of amalgamating potentially outcast youth into the mainstream of military service and hesder frameworks.
Traditionally, hesder yeshivot were inhabited by high-school graduates of a rather elitist cut. After all, it is not just any 18-year-old who is capable of poring over challenging religious texts, usually 12 hours a day, for 44 months. The shorter study framework, while still significant, could be less intimidating to many, Ozeri told the Post.
But for Assaf Weiss, who founded a program to empower the youth of “second Israel” and has successfully been doing so for the past ten years, Shiluvim is primarily an opportunity for young men seeking a hesder yeshiva to undergo a more significant and meaningful military service.
Eleven years ago, as Weiss was approaching the end of his elongated eight-year hesder program in Ma’alot, he began seeking a way to make a significant impact on his surroundings, as hesder graduates are encouraged to do. He consulted with the Yeshiva head, Rabbi Yehoshua Weitzman, and they noticed that nearly all of the youths attending hesder yeshivot and mechinot (preparatory courses) hailed from a very high socio-economic demographic – graduates of yeshiva-high schools, residents of settlements, small towns and upper-class neighborhoods.
Weiss came up with the idea “to connect youths from the periphery to a world of ideals, motivation and military service” by having a young counselor teach a weekly class to 11th and 12th graders, an extra-curricular session dedicated to moral dilemmas, military experiences, values and motivation. At the end of the process, the counselor would also expose the pupils to various existent pre-military frameworks, such as mechinot and yeshivot.
When it started off as a pilot ten years ago, the program, dubbed Ma’agalim, was taught in seven public religious high schools in the North, and today reaches some 3,500 students in 67 schools nationwide. A recent Bar-Ilan University study found that in 2009, 43 percent of high-school graduates who were exposed to Ma’agalim continued afterward to a pre-military framework, compared to 13.2% from the same schools in 2001, before the program was established.
“Previously, youths from the municipal religious high schools were not even exposed to the hesder yeshivot, which were of no interest to them,” Weiss told the Post. “The army wanted to promote the Shiluvim program, and saw that it suited our graduates,” he continued, noting the good feedback he is receiving from his former pupils who also feel at ease in yeshivot that pray in the Sephardi tradition, and will even tolerate the presence of students “with an earring and gelled hair.” “We are currently witnessing a huge breakthrough in the world of hesder yeshivot, which has decided to open its gates to the periphery,” Weiss said.