Are hesder yeshivot accomplishing what they should?

Ideologically speaking, these institutions should be facilitating the steps their students have to take from its study halls to those of the university.

A hesder yeshiva is an institution of higher religious learning which classically structures itself around a fiveyear program combining the study of Torah and service in the IDF. I have been teaching in the Yeshivat Hesder Derech Chaim in Kiryat Gat for five years, and consider it a privilege to play a role in molding young men around the ideals I strongly believe in – Torah and Israel.
The hesder institutions have had a successful impact on the army and its combat forces, and today’s perception of the observant soldier is admirably respectable. Yet when viewing the entire paradigm of the hesder yeshiva, there remains one aspect which is overlooked and which is a source of great disappointment; it is unclear whether or not these institutions prepare their students properly for life after the yeshiva.
Hesder is part of the Mizrahi movement which is meant to be proactive and innovative when dealing with the secular world by incorporating and synthesizing Jewish values and the observance of Jewish law. As an elite representative of the Mizrahi philosophy, one would expect the yeshiva hesder to recognize that not all of its students are capable of spending their lives in the four walls of the yeshiva. Many need to be and should be provided with opportunities to prove themselves outside the yeshiva as they venture into the world at large and hopefully find productive ways to become concerned and contributing members of society.
One facilitator of this goal is naturally the pursuit of a secular advanced education in colleges or universities. Therefore the yeshivot hesder should guide and direct their students toward these goals both ideologically and practically, yet I am afraid this is not happening.
LAST YEAR, an initiative called Project Knowledge was introduced by Avishai Ovadya, a student in the hesder yeshiva in Petah Tikva. The initiative calls for a yeshivat hesder to conduct special forum and lectures which would confront social and communal issues in society from a halachic and religious perspective, introducing these issues to the students and enabling them to appreciate, analyze and ultimately deal with these concerns from a religious standpoint.
This proposal can potentially introduce part of the philosophical aspects and ideas of religious Zionism to hesder students; however, the practical elements and their applications are not addressed. For example, when I asked Ovadya about including an introduction of existing options within the world of academia, he responded by saying, “Students are aware of these options and if they want them, they know where to find them; they do not need us for that.”
The problem with this response is twofold.
Firstly, it is not entirely true. Many students are not aware of all their options, nor do they realize the extent that some of them are available. With this in mind, it is important to realize that while the yeshivot hesder once catered to and attracted the “elite” student who was immersed and committed to academic excellence and who naturally gravitated to pursuing academics post-hesder, today hesder has grown in popularity and its doors are open to and reach a much larger number and wider range of students.
These students include those on the periphery from a more varied sector of society who may not have achieved excellence in their studies, but with guidance would be interested in doing so in their future.
This is not to imply that the level of study has decreased within the hesder yeshiva; it just means it is more readily available (as it should be) to more types of students who are both interested and prepared for the commitment that hesder entails, and therefore whose needs must be addressed.
Secondly and more importantly, ideologically speaking the yeshivat hesder should be facilitating the steps its students have to take from its study halls to those of the university.
The yeshiva should emphasize the need for students to benefit from a wholesome and well-rounded education for the sake of becoming productive citizens.
RECENTLY, AN article appeared in Olam Katan by Rabbi Uri Shirki of Machon Meir Jerusalem, entitled, “Thoughts on academia (in relation to the yeshiva world).” Shirki championed the importance of “struggling and grappling with” the Jewish foundations of faith. He explained that Judaism promotes investigation, and someone who is steadfast and secure about his belief in God is not frightened by studying a diversity of sources which may contradict or challenge those fundamentals; if he is afraid, then he must question his foundations to begin with.
Shirki continues explaining how unfortunately in the yeshiva (hesder) the study of emuna – belief in God – fails to incorporate perspectives from the secular world, which in turn limits the students’ understanding of the world and the impact they can have on it. Why are more programs not being implemented to clarify the options and prepare students for these goals? One of the reasons is due to some of the rabbis who teach in hesder, and their overwhelming concern that exposure to the secular university campus will perhaps compromise the religious values of their students.
Rabbi Yosef Carmel, head of the prestigious Eretz Hemda Kollel in Jerusalem, says in response, “If the rabbis are fearful for the spiritual well-being of their students when they venture out into ‘uncharted waters,’ then the rabbis’ objectives and strategies need to be reassessed.”
The hesder yeshiva was established in 1953 out of concern that the secular army would have a negative effect on the observance of yeshiva students. To help avoid this problem, the yeshiva hesder implemented units of beinishim (an acronym for units consisting of observant yeshiva students) who serve together to protect and preserve their religious ideals. Interestingly enough, as the hesder students began to prove that they were capable of doing so within the army, new trends began to emerge. Today some of the yeshivot hesder (such as Har Bracha and Yeroham) encourage their students to join nonobservant units and serve as representatives of religious values.
This trend demonstrates that the yeshiva is capable of preparing its students for challenges on the outside. Therefore hesder should disseminate a plan and incorporate programs to prepare its fourth- and fifthyear students to venture into academia while preserving and enhancing the essence of Torah and its values (much like it does for its first and second year students before they leave to serve in the army).
Hesder should introduce lecture series and presentations by accomplished professionals who have succeeded in the world of academia but continued to uphold an allegiance to Torah study. They should not only address the challenges religious students can encounter on the university campus by way of warning, but they should tout the advantages of studying in them as well. They should espouse how the hesder students can be major contributors to the broader society based on their experience, knowledge, tolerance and open-mindedness.
In addition. the yeshivot hesder should host a conference inviting universities and colleges to their campuses, providing for its students practical guidance from professionals regarding their future.
Finally, it is common practice for the rabbis of the yeshivat hesder to visit their students while they are serving in the army to revive their spirits; the same should be offered for students who have completed their term and are now in university. If we expect our students to maintain the standards of the Torah which we teach, but are aware of the challenges to doing so in a foreign environment (such as the army and university), then we should continue to visit our students while they are on campus, and encourage them to maintain their Torah study as they study academics.
This is the only way hesder will serve as the design for the future.
The writer teaches at Hesder Kiryat Gat and serves as a guest lecturer for the IDF Rabbinate.

He is also an author and lecturer on Israel, Religious Zionism and Jewish education.