Idealism and Torah

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31 May 2018

The newly established hesder yeshiva in Ramla couldn’t have asked for a warmer reception from their neighbors. On their second day at yeshiva, Arab neighbors set the field next to the yeshiva building ablaze. Our son Eliyahu Yeshaya discovered the blaze and called the fire department, which took about twenty minutes to arrive. Meanwhile the blaze was extinguished by our son. He noticed water irrigation pipes, cut one of them and turned on the outside faucet.  Boruch HaShem, the fire was extinguished without damage to the yeshiva structure and harm to people. By the time the fire department arrived, there was no work left for them to do.

The young men had received a sweeter reception the day before as they walked through the shuk (outdoor market) on their way to the new adventure of being the founding group of Yeshivat Ramla. The Jewish vendors gave the group large amounts of fruit and told them how happy they are to have them come to Ramla. There is a thirst in the city, especially in the mixed Arab Jewish neighborhoods, for a religious Jewish presence.

The initiative for the founding of the only yeshiva in the city, came from the Ramla municipality, which wants to strengthen Judaism in Ramla in general, and particularly in the mixed Jewish/Arab neighborhoods. The municipality allotted them a building in the very run-down Agash neighborhood.

Due to red tape, renovations on the building only began the day that the students, accompanied by parents, arrived with their belongings. I wasn’t fazed by the conditions—outside showers, building debris, cobwebs, etc., (the building had last been used as a primary school about six years earlier) because of the idealism involved in establishing the only yeshiva in the city. Moreover, I had experienced living in run-down places in Israel as a volunteer and as a counselor.

Ramla, located in the center of the country, has approximately 75,000 residents of which 75% are Jewish.  The neighborhood in which the yeshiva is located, consists of mostly elderly, Sephardic Jewish residents and Arabs.

The yeshiva, established in 2014 by Rabbi Aryeh Hendler, a former rosh yeshiva in Yeshivat Shaalvim, has a four-year program. The young men study for two years and do army service for two years. One of the special aspects of Yeshivat Ramla is that the young men return to the yeshiva for a month and a half between their two years of army service. Despite his busy and rigorous schedule, Rabbi Hendler makes sure to be at the various military ceremonies in which “his boys” participate. (Rabbi Hendler is one of the most sought-after people who leads Holocaust tours in Europe.)

During the first year, there were frequent incidences with some of the Arab neighbors, who saw the yeshiva as a threat.  The Arabs would throw fireworks, stones and set fires. The Israeli police did not do anything to deter the Arabs. Finally, the yeshiva students called the media and the news spread like wildfire (no pun intended). Only then did the police step in and make some arrests and open some police files. Now the rate of attacks has gone down to about one every few months or so.

There are varied studies in the yeshiva including Gemorah, Tanach, halacha, the philosophy of Rav Kook, Chassidut, the Kuzari, life skills, hand-to-hand combat to help ease them into the army, etc. In addition, the yeshiva runs programs for the Jewish community—sometimes in conjunction with the 85-family strong garin Torani of the city. The families are spread out in various neighborhoods in Ramla. (Since the children of these families cannot play in a public park because of the Arabs, they see the yeshiva grounds as their park.)

The bochurim volunteer in non-religious schools; they run programs which strengthen Jewish values. Before or on a holiday, the students go out to the community. For example, on Chanuka, the yeshiva guys go around looking for doorposts with a mezuzah on it. When found, they knock on the door and ask if the person wants to light a Chanukah menorah. If the answer is in the affirmative, the boys enter the home and help their fellow Jew light a menorah. Afterwards they sing some Chanukah songs.

Our son described how a few of the guys knocked on a door that had a mezuzah affixed to it, and the door was opened by an Arab woman who was wearing traditional Arab garb. She asked them what they wanted and so one of the guys explained that it was Chanuka and they were bringing menoras to Jewish homes.  The Arab woman said excitedly, “I love Chanuka and I love Jewish holidays. Please come in!” Other family members joined her as one of the yeshiva men lit the menorah.

Another Chanuka, our son and some friends knocked on a door with a mezuzah. An elderly woman opened the door and was ecstatic to see them. It turns out that she is a widow and a bereaved mother who had lost a son in a war. It was also her birthday. She told the guys that if they hadn’t come, she would have been all by herself on her birthday. The next year a home-made birthday cake accompanied the menorah that was brought to her home.

The Agash neighborhood once boasted a flourishing Jewish community with shuls bursting with congregants. Much of the Jewish population moved out and an elderly population remained. Arabs bought up the inexpensive apartments and moved into the neighborhood. On Simchat Torah and Purim the yeshiva students go around to the shuls that are still in use, and they bring with them enthusiasm, vigor and youthfulness, which the elderly Jews are delighted to have in their shuls. On a daily basis, members of the garin Torani daven in some of the shuls.

I recently visited Eliyahu Yeshaya and received a tour of the beautiful Beit Midrash, which had been created from a run-down structure on the yeshiva grounds. The sounds of Torah emanate from the Beit Midrash day and night. I also viewed the gardens that he and some friends planted. The students are responsible for the cleaning, cooking and fix-it projects of the yeshiva. In his first year of yeshiva, our vegetarian son built a chicken coop in the yard so that he would have a supply of organic chicken eggs and duck eggs! (Ramla does not have a health food store.)

It must run in the family, because two years later, our youngest son, Yisrael Meir, chose to learn in Yeshivat Ramat Gan, which is also situated purposely in a run-down neighborhood with crime elements. When we came to deliver some of our son’s belongings, there was no parking in sight. Our son said that we could park on the sidewalk because the police turns a blind eye in that neighborhood. (There is also a very active garin Torani in Ramat Gan which runs many programs to benefit the city.)

We are fortunate to have such idealistic young men who choose to learn in hesder yeshivot which have activities for the local population which enrich fellow Jews with Torah values. These young men go on to be soldiers in the IDF, where they are often admired for their strong ethical behavior, their Zionistic spirit and their diligence.

Adina Hershberg is a freelance writer who made aliyah in 1981; she has been living in Gush Etzion for almost sixteen years.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.