Chopping Down the Hesder Yehivot on which we Sit

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Rabbi Amichai Gordin Yeshivat Har Etzion and Shaalvim High School

I was advised to leave the Hesder program in a personal meeting with the commander of Bahad 1, the officers’ training center of the IDF. I had finished a stint as a team commander, and I asked to be transferred to an operational battalion. My company and battalion commanders had both recommended approving my request, but the base commander refused. He said with a sting, “In the current circumstances, the only alternative is for you to leave the Hesder.” I saluted and left the office.

I have no complaint about the refusal itself, it was legitimate and understandable. However, I was irked by the attitude of the commander towards Hesder. Is there only one brand of service that can be the basis of a contribution to this country – and that is full army service of three years? Is everything else completely irrelevant?

I suppose I could have left the Hesder program, a combination of shortened army service and Torah study in a yeshiva. Would the automatic result have been that I would have contributed more to the country? In the last twenty years I have been involved in educating young men. In order to teach, it is necessary to study a lot and to develop. If I had listened to the advice of the base commander at the time, I would not have acquired the knowledge of Torah and experience that I achieved in the yeshiva. Would our society and the country really have profited more if I had indeed completed four years of service as an officer in the IDF?

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I will not list the benefits and the many accomplishments of the Hesder program. All I will do is to describe several of my colleagues who studied with me at Yeshivat Har Etzion. Just one class of many, in one yeshiva. Let the public be the judge.

One of the graduates in my class is the Rosh Yeshiva of a high school in Raana, and another is the head of an Ulpanah in Tzefat. One classmate is the head of the renewed Hesder yeshiva in Petach Tikva, and another is Rabbi Chaim Navon, a famous and quite active community rabbi. We have the rabbi of the secular town of Kefar Sirkin, and a rabbi in Kefar Chassidim. One of our graduates is a rabbi who made aliyah on foot from Ethiopia, who is today the rabbi of an Israeli congregation. We have an admired and influential educator in Ofakim, and the principal of a high school in Beer Sheva. And the list goes on…

I assume that the commander of Bahad 1 would have advised these friends of mine to leave the Hesder program too. Did our country and our society suffer a loss because they chose the Hesder? Does this remarkable group contribute less to the country than their friends who served for 36 months?

In principal, it is possible to serve for 36 months and then study in a yeshiva. But forty years of experience with the program have shown that except for a minority of outstanding exceptions this doesn’t work. After three years of full army service, very few people are able to spend another five or six years studying Torah in a serious and thorough way.

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If we want to start discussing different types of service, we can compare a Hesder soldier in a combat unit who serves full weeks of 24 hours for 7 days to a soldier in the human resources department of the IDF, who serves 9 hours a day, 5 days of every week. And we have not yet taken into account reserve duty, after the end of regular army service. We must look at the overall picture, and at the total contribution to society and the country.

If the current attempts at “targeted elimination” of the Hesder succeed – where will you continue to get educators and rabbis who are attuned to the needs of the community? Where will you find rabbis who have strong links to Israeli society? Which rabbis will perform wedding ceremonies for you, who will make halachic rulings for you? Exactly who will teach your children Torah? Who will run for the position of Chief Rabbi of Israel in the next generation?

Do we want to return to the days of the Chareidi teachers who taught the previous generation of yeshiva high school students? Will the 1,800 Chareidi geniuses who will be allowed to study in yeshiva and not do army service be enough to fill all the tasks in the religious Zionist camp and within the country as a whole?

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Sure, there are problems with Hesder. Some of the participants do not really study. Others are arrogant and try to use their religion for their personal advantage. We definitely have a lot of work to do in the Hesder yeshivot. We have to work hard to take care of all of these problems.

However, there are problems everywhere – in academia, in the army, in government offices, even in the educational system. Should we destroy and eliminate everything because of the problems? We have made some mistakes in the Hesder yeshivot by not paying enough attention to the problems. Is that a reason to punish the entire country and completely eliminate the Hesder program?

The Hesder should be pressured into improving and becoming more efficient. It must “clean out its barn.” We must make sure that the program is run in the best possible way. But with the same strength and determination, we must act to preserve this precious and important program.

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For every sports champion, it is necessary to invest in developing a thousand others. For every scientist who wins a Nobel prize, a thousand other scientists must be trained. For every Rosh Yeshiva and local rabbi it is necessary to invest in a hundred other people. The Chareidi camp understands this very well. And that is why 1,800 special scholars are being left for them every year. But what about our camp? Who will preserve our burning coals?