Yeshiva heads: Shorter hesder concession to weaker students

Critics skeptical about allowing shortened service for students who do not or can not devote themselves to Torah scholarship.

hesder kids dancing  (photo credit: Yaakov Lappin)
hesder kids dancing
(photo credit: Yaakov Lappin)
The hesder yeshivas' decision to offer a shorter, less demanding study option comes in response to a growing number of students who lack the necessary intellectual skills, yeshiva heads said on Wednesday. However, critics said they doubted it was justified to allow shortened hesder service for students who did not or could not devote themselves to Torah scholarship. "Hesder yeshivas were created to produce Torah scholars who also have a civic conscience to perform basic army duty," said Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of the Or Etzion Yeshiva in Mercaz Shapira, near Kiryat Malachi. "However, there are many young men who do not have what it takes to be scholars, but who still want a very religious framework." In an agreement reached between the IDF and the yeshivas, students will now be allowed to opt for a four-year course that combines a shorter period of Torah study with longer army service. The first and last years will be devoted to yeshiva study, while the middle two years will consist of military service. Presently, hesder yeshivas offer only a five-year course that sandwiches 18 months of army service between two stints of Torah study that add up to more than three years. This five-year course will be maintained, while the shorter, less intellectually demanding four-year course will be added as an option in some hesder yeshivas. Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld, head of the Shadmot Mechola Yeshiva in the Jordan Valley, said he was still debating whether to offer the four-year option. "There is the danger that guys with intellectual potential will choose an easier path. That would be a shame," he said. Rosenfeld said that over the years, as the number of hesder students has grown, there has been a larger proportion unable to sit and study for long periods. "There are a lot of good guys who are God-fearing and want to be in a religious environment, but who find the curriculum too demanding," he said. "These guys will spend a little less time in the study hall and a little more time in the army." However, sources close to the Pre-military Yeshiva Academies, which combine a one-year preparatory course of Torah studies - that is sometimes expanded to two years - with a full three years of military service, voiced concern that the new four-year program might attract students who would otherwise have gone to the Pre-military academies. One source close to the academies said in response, "This new option will breed mediocrity. The guys won't learn properly and they also won't do full army service properly. I don't see the justification for shortening a religious guy's army service if he is not learning Torah seriously." Rabbi Moshe Hager-Lau, chairman of the Union of Pre-military academies, declined to comment. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, one of the head of the Petah Tikva Hesder Yeshiva, said that there was much deliberation among rabbis over whether it was justified to shorten military service if the students were not striving to become Torah scholars. "However, I reject the claim that a four-year course will hurt the pre-military academies," he said. "There is still a big difference between the atmosphere in a yeshiva compared to a pre-military academy. And in the hesder yeshivas, guys come back to learn after the military service is over, which helps them make the transition back to civilian life," Cherlow said. Rabbi Eitan Ozeri, chairman of the Union of Hesder Yeshivas, said that every year some 1,400 religious high school graduates enrolled in about 40 hesder yeshivas. In recent years there has been an annual growth of about 5 percent in the hesder yeshivas, he said. Some of this included weaker students who nevertheless have a high level of religiosity. Ozeri added that the IDF has a vested interested in seeing hesder students performing longer military duty.