Guess who they are?
They are in Israel.
They do not speak or study modern Hebrew.
They do not sing ‘Hatikvah.’
They do not study Israeli history.
They do not read an Israeli newspaper, listen to Israeli radio or watch Israeli television.
They do not tour Zionist sites but do make pilgrimage to the tombs of “holy men.”
They do not observe the Israeli civic calendar, such as Independence Day and Jerusalem Day, and most do not observe Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Who are they?
You might think that we are referring to extreme Islamists in distant corners of some Arab town or village. Maybe we speak of Bedouin in an encampment clinging to the side of a hill en route to Jericho or in the deep Negev.
They are the participants in one of the biggest bluffs in the Orthodox Jewish world today. They are participants in “The Year in Israel,” run by American yeshivot or American/Overseas programs organized by haredi Orthodox yeshivot for males and by seminaries (Midrashot) for females, mostly in and around Jerusalem.
The only true word in that gap-year title is the word “year.” But they are not at all in Israel. They are in a never-never land that consists mainly of Talmudic study Halacha, and perhaps one lesson a week in Bible. For the women, there is a subject called Hashkafah, a word meant perhaps to convey something like “philosophical attitude,” but is really a form of brainwashing. Of Jewish history or at least seeing modern Israel, there is little or nothing in the curriculum. Perhaps in some schools the Holocaust is blamed on those Jews who did not observe haredi and anti-Zionist rabbinic authorities.
The exception is naturally the Orthodox gap-year programs of the Zionist yeshivot, beginning with that of Gush Etzion. They may study the same subjects but with a different approach.
Aside from this exception, the many so-called Year in Israel participants I have met match all or almost all the criteria with which I started this column. The participants can probably tell you the names of all the Jerusalem restaurants or eateries with a super kosher certificate (Badatz), and which eatery serves the best “chili-dog.”
At one of the seminaries, I even heard the headmistress say “Brukhos HaBaos” in the pure old Ashkenazi Hebrew. This was replaced well over a century ago by the neo-Sefardi Hebrew in Israel, and later in most Hebrew schools in the Diaspora, ranging from modern Orthodox to Reform.
As an Israeli, I resent these people peddling a non-Israeli, anti-Zionist fake “Year in Israel.” As a taxpayer, I resent subsidizing these programs. As a lover of tradition and Jewish history, I resent their neglecting Jewish history, and not recognizing the modern reality that has changed the course of history of the Jewish people: Zionism and Israel. As the founding vice-provost of the longest and I believe largest gap-year program in Israel, as part of the Rothberg International School, I am sad to see so many misled by so many.
Or maybe they are not misled at all. As a good friend who is carefully observant Modern Orthodox said to me, “I sent my son on such a program because a year in Israel ensures a good shidduch (marriage match).” So that is the real reason: the seminaries and yeshiva Year in Israel programs are actually “shidduch factories.”
Now, dear reader, do not fall off your chairs. The few such betrothals that my wife, Henrietta, and I have witnessed seem to produce good matches. I have no objection to shidduch factories, but I just want truth in advertising.
In my experience with overseas programs at the Hebrew University, a number of love matches and marriages also ensued. I wish the Hebrew University’s leadership today and in the past decades were as far-sighted as Sam Rothberg and Avraham Harman (respectively, chairman of the board and president of the university in the early 1970s). Had that been so, there would have been a careful follow-up of its overseas alumni. Thus we would know today how many marriages ensued, or how many alumni made their home in Israel. Probably that holds true of the parallel programs at other universities in Israel.
I know that many Jewish leaders in the Diaspora today – lay leaders, foundation heads, rabbis and community professionals – spent a fruitful gap year or more at one of our universities. In the Jerusalem overseas program in my time, we required at least one course in Jewish or Israel studies, and intensive Ulpan Hebrew language studies before and during the year. Touring Israel was built into the program, and Israeli dorm counselors provided a living connection to modern Israeli life. Compare this to the Badatz-land year.
So, to return to our original theme. Truth in advertising. How about “Year in Badatz-Land” or “Shidduch Prep Factory?”
But why blame the Israel-based programs? Why not blame the regressive yeshiva world of the haredim, abroad as well as in Israel? When will the Ashkenazi haredim yeshivot in Israel recognize the state?
Oh yes, they do… in part. They give full recognition to the Ministry of Finance. ■
The writer spent much of his professional life fostering Israel’s centrality in Diaspora communities. This included years of service in the Prime Minister’s Office of David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and as World Chairman of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal.