Wisdom of the heart – not of the ‘bagrut’

We lack the necessary budget, and it’s a pity to see these skilled youth prevented from taking the exam.

Mayor Nir Barkat at the Jerusalem Marathon press conference this past March (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mayor Nir Barkat at the Jerusalem Marathon press conference this past March
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
At the end of last month’s city council meeting, ultra-Orthodox councilman Eliezer Rauchberger couldn’t restrain himself. He stood up, screaming and cursing Mayor Nir Barkat’s decision, approved by the council, to provide a budget for Chachmei Lev, Jerusalem’s first and so far only yeshiva that combines talmudic studies with an academic curriculum in preparation for the matriculation exams (bagrut).
“Chachmei Lev is toxic; it is poisoning haredi society from inside!” roared Rauchberger. “It is inconceivable that an institution aimed at the destruction of the haredi way of life and working against our great rabbis will be installed in the heart of haredi neighborhoods.”
Rauchberger was not alone. At the same session, Deputy Mayor Yitzhak Pindrus (United Torah Judaism) attacked secular council members for what he called their sudden interest in finding a place for a small yeshiva of 60 students “just because their agenda is against our way of life and will destroy us from within.”
“Where were you all during the years we begged for buildings for the hundreds of haredi students packed into small apartments for lack of an alternative?” he demanded.
About a year ago, an emergency meeting of prominent rabbis in the haredi sector of the city’s northern neighborhoods dealt with the city council’s decision to give the yeshiva a plot in the planned education compound in Ramat Eshkol, despite the fact that they were placed in the secular, not haredi, part of the compound. Barkat has since withdrawn from that plan, and since its establishment the yeshiva has been situated in a temporary building in the campus near the secular Boyer high school, with a large tent serving as the beit midrash (Torah study hall). As for the dorms, they are located in Givat Mordechai.
In terms of the next school year, which begins in September, about 100 students (with at least 40 new students already registered) still don’t know where they will study or sleep.
Bezalel Cohen, the man behind Chachmei Lev, seems like the least threatening person one could think of. Soft-spoken and smiling, he published, about 15 years ago, an analysis in Eretz Aheret (a bimonthly review on Israeli society) of poverty within the haredi sector. He said the situation had become unbearable and required a radical solution – namely, academic education and meaningful entry into the Israeli workplace.
Since then, Cohen has presented his position everywhere, with Chachmei Lev being the most concrete realization of his vision – to combine general education and skills in math, English and science with traditional, strict talmudic studies in a typical yeshiva atmosphere with typical rules.
“Parents who send their children to Chachmei Lev thank us with tears in their eyes because they understand that this is the institution that can save their children, who do not fit into the traditional yeshiva system, from dropping out of school. We offer a high level of study in an inclusive framework, enabling youth to study Torah and yet be ready to take their place in society – exactly as it has been working for years in American haredi society,” says Cohen. “This is exactly what bothers the haredim here so much, that we look at the American haredi model and adopt it.”
But the aggressive reaction of the haredim – on the city council and in society – is only one part of Cohen’s and Chachmei Lev’s problem. With their traditional ultra-Orthodox garb, these students are not welcome in the secular sector. Any attempt to find a suitable location for the yeshiva in a secular neighborhood has raised strong opposition for fear that it is yet another step aimed at imposing haredi presence.
Cohen asserts that he doesn’t care where the yeshiva ends up, as long as there is a suitable place found.
“This is the municipality’s task, and I rely on them for this. I don’t care where, and I am not involved in the task of finding a place. What matters for me is that we find one as soon as possible so that we can develop our pedagogic programs,” he says.
Asked how he sees the future of his institution, Cohen enthuses about his dream of bringing in other young yeshiva students to enhance Chachmei Lev’s talmudic studies “to develop more the traditional talmudic studying tradition of the yeshiva world.”
He also mentions enhancements to the curriculum.
“We need more learning hours in math, in sciences. For the moment, I cannot fulfill the growing demands of my students; they want to more hours of study in order to take the highest level of the math bagrut, but I can’t afford it. We lack the necessary budget, and it’s a pity to see these skilled youth prevented from taking the exam,” he laments.
Cohen says that once the municipality finally finds a suitable place for the yeshiva – whether via renting, purchasing or even starting construction on an existing city plot – his major aim will be to strengthen his institution’s connection with the philanthropic world.
“I believe that this is exactly the role of philanthropy – to promote such projects, to bring as much as possible an educated alternative for young haredim without taking the risk of uprooting them from the haredi way of life,” he says.
Pindrus, one of the fierce opponents to Cohen and his yeshiva, says there is no way the haredi sector will ever accept or even tolerate this project. “Cohen is not just offering a yeshiva that equips students to take the bagrut,” Pindrus contends. “In fact, he is planning to destroy the haredi way. He wants to impose a change from within, to deprive us of our tradition and way of life – so, of course, we will never allow it.”