Guest columnist: New year, new pioneer

New year, new pioneer

In the article "Hesder pre-IDF academies more popular," which appeared in The Jerusalem Post earlier this month, Matthew Wagner points to the rapid growth in popularity of yeshivot hesder that have begun to cater to those students attending "regular" religious high schools, such as the Yeshivat Hesder Derech Haim in Kiryat Gat, where I teach. Over the span of 10 years, the percentage of students from regular religious high schools opting to attend these yeshivot has grown from 13 percent to 43%. What Wagner failed to address or explain was why this was taking place. Unfortunately success is measured in our world by how much money we earn, not by our lofty ideological ambitions. Recently I asked a group of high school students what they wanted to do when they grew up. One of them sincerely responded that he wanted to become a corporate raider and make his first million in his first year on the job. There was a time, not long ago, when such an answer was deemed unacceptable. Previous generations understood what it meant to work for a living. They appreciated an opportunity to dedicate themselves to a cause without demanding personal self-gratification. The State of Israel owes its existence to a generation of pioneers who toiled to actualize a vision they were unlikely to witness in their lifetimes - a beautiful, thriving homeland destined for the use of future generations. The current hedonistic society we live in is founded upon self-indulgence, and yet ideology is preserved consistently (not exclusively) through religiosity. What I have witnessed over the course of my years teaching in the hesder yeshiva is that our youth yearn for a disciplined but patient environment in which they can learn what it means to achieve a purposeful existence. They come to the yeshiva not only because they can learn about religious observance, but because they can translate their learning into action by defending and serving their nation. Balancing and inculcating the institutions of both spiritual and physical sacrifice, the students equip themselves with the opportunity to actualize what their predecessors merely dreamed of. THIS IS a mission that promotes confidence which in turn breeds leadership, and therefore it works. During my tenure at the yeshiva, I have seen pathetic youth morph into observant Jews, upstanding citizens and soldiers who serve with self-assurance. This doctrine affects not only the students themselves but the people around them as well. The experiences I had two weeks ago strengthened my conviction. Five of my students are currently undergoing basic training on a base in the southern Negev. They belong to a division of 45 "beiyneshim" (an acronym for bnei yeshiva-hesder yeshiva students). When I was informed that they were experiencing difficulties (as do all new recruits), I was concerned for their welfare and decided to spend Shabbat with them to reinforce their morale. Late Friday night after the Shabbat meal, I conducted an Oneg Shabbat (an extension of the Shabbat meal which involves sitting in a circle, singing Shabbat songs and offering thoughts and insights from the Torah) which, although all are welcome, generally caters to and attracts the yeshiva boys. Most non-observant soldiers opt to socialize or to sleep, which is understandable as this is their only day for rest and relaxation. This being the case, I was surprised that both the base commander and their company commander, neither of whom are observant, joined us. I was even more surprised when the commander unexpectedly stood up and made the following remarks, "This weeks Torah portion begins, 'Ki tetzei lamilhama - and it shall be when you go out to war.' Some commentaries explain that this war refers to the struggles which we experience with discipline and self-motivation and, at times, this personal war can be far more challenging than what we encounter on the battlefield. The army will help you understand that the world is much larger than you think it is; we will train you to deal with dilemmas, not only ones which you will no doubt encounter in combat but those which you will face in life in general. You beiyneshim understand many of these concepts because your institutions dare you to confront both yourselves and the adversity facing your communities. This is why we expect the most from all of you here in our command." THE MESSAGE of the base commander resonated loud and clear. He expressed a notion that one who subscribes to tradition and to the disciplines of a religion is endowed with greater potential to establish standards and influence values. The next morning the company commander came over to say Shabbat Shalom, but before he had a chance to do so, I told him how impressed I was that he participated in the Oneg Shabbat, demonstrating respect for his soldiers. He responded saying, "I am in charge of four divisions, one of them being this group of yeshiva boys. I try my hardest to devote most of my time to them because I recognize that they are the most committed and they ask the most intelligent and enlightening questions. It is a pleasure to command these observant soldiers because they espouse ideology, and I think I know why. You want to know why?" he asked me rhetorically. "Because they are the people of the book." This young captain recognized and appreciated what so many of our youth fail to grasp and what so many within our leadership have forgotten. The exclusive title "people of the book" cannot be purchased, it is earned and inherited through sincere devotion and passionate dedication. My students, and so many more, have found meaning in their lives through the hesder yeshiva because it encapsulates and institutes the service of God, country and nation. Last week we were blessed with the beginning of a new year. The beiyneshim are blessed because they are the pioneers of a new generation.• The writer teaches at Hesder Kiryat Gat/Sderot and is an author and lecturer on Israel, Religious Zionism and Jewish education.