Young men singing – Hodu laShem ki Tov- and gunshots. That was the tragic mix of sounds heard that Friday night ten years ago when two Islamic Jihad terrorists climbed up to the yishuv, cut the gate surrounding the yeshiva and entered through the kitchen door of בית ועד הר חברון, Hebron Hills Torah Academy, better known as Yeshivat Otniel.
A group of yeshiva students (most of them from Yeshivat Hagush who were visiting Otniel for Shabbat) were eating in the dining room. Separating the dining room and the kitchen are two sliding doors with small glass windows at the top. Inside the kitchen were 4 shana aleph students who were on kitchen duty. As soon as they realized what was going on, they locked the sliding doors – and locked themselves in the kitchen. They were immediately killed, but due to the tricky lock mechanism, the terrorists couldn’t figure out how to open the doors to the dining room. That heroic act of locking the kitchen door, though it sealed their fates, is what saved the lives of many others. The terrorists proceeded to shoot through the small glass windows into the dining hall, injuring a few. The other students escaped and immediately contacted the army. The soldiers came and neutralized the terrorists. One of the soldiers, also a student at Otniel was severely wounded, but baruch Hashem pulled through. Every year the pigua (terrorist attack) is commemorated in Otniel and mention is made of the four students who cut off their own avenue of escape, but guaranteed the safety of others.
While there had been security back then, today an electric fence with touch sensors has been erected around the yeshiva. There is also a large army base nearby, guards posted and a group of older post-army students who are members of the emergency reaction unit (in Hebrew – a “kitat koninut“) and armed at all times. These are necessary precautions, although the general security situation in the area is much better these days.
In an attempt to get a better understanding of Yeshivat Otniel’s place in the hesder world, I spoke with Eyal Schwartz, a shana aleph student and Ra’anan Rosenbaum, a madrich in the Overseas Program. Hesder comes from the word l’sader – to make an agreement. This type of yeshiva program came about many decades ago as an agreement between the secular Israeli army and the dati leumi – national religious – community. The dati leumi retain the belief that our faith in God and our learning His Torah is what will help us defeat our enemies. However, they also believe that service to the country is a holy endeavor, and serving in the army is part of that holiness. Thus the idea of yeshivat hesder was born.
The classic hesder program consists of one and half years of learning after high school, 16 months active army service and then 2 more years in yeshiva. If a student wants to advance in his army career, he will stay longer than the minimum 16 months in active service. As in the case of Ra’anan, a student can stay longer in the yeshiva setting as well. The “rules” of hesder, however, only apply for the first 5 years. By law, a hesder student must study in yeshiva all week. He is not allowed to take outside courses, as the only reason he is allowed to serve for only 16 months, instead of the standard three years, is because he is learning the remainder of the time. After the five years, the student can learn half day and work or go to school, whatever they want.
Ra’anan explains the goals of a hesder yeshiva.
“The idea is to bring together two opposite ideals in a way that works for both sides. Really these are two worlds that can’t get more opposite than they already are. Because, although we are religious and we would like to provide a good learning environment for our chevra out of high school for as long as possible, at the same time we realize that the army also needs them. “
The real study in contrast, Ra’anan maintains, is in the radically different set up of the yeshiva and the army.
“The boys coming to hesder are usually boys who want to come and learn. The rabbis do not chase after them, making sure they wake up on time etc. There are much less codes and rules, lots more room for self-motivation. Especially in the first year here, when the boys are trying to find their place, figure out what their religious future will look like, who they are. In the army, of course, it’s the opposite. From the moment you wake up, you are being told what to do and how to do it and where to do it. Nobody cares about your personal goals. All they care about is you following orders.”
“Although,” Ra’anan adds, “I do know people who felt they grew more religious in the army than in yeshiva. Often the army experience is the first time these boys are thrown into an environment made up of all different types of people from Israeli society. Not just the religious people of their youth. They’re now with chilonim, with olim from other countries. Of course it could be detrimental for someone’s religious growth but sometimes it can actually benefit the boy because he find himself representing religion. They’re the religious one so everybody else will look to them for answers and anything they do reflects on their religion. Although, I personally do not feel that I developed more religiously in the army than in yeshiva, I do share this outlook.”
I’m curious if the regular soldiers resent the hesder boys. Ra’anan feels resentment is too strong a word.
“Perhaps initially they might be a little annoyed,” he says, “but if you have a good relationship with your chevra then it becomes an unimportant factor, nothing anybody thinks about on a day to day basis. People understand that there are different options for different people.”
Most Israeli boys from dati leumi homes attend some kind of after high school learning program before they continue on to the army. Most go to hesder and those who don’t, attend what’s called Mechina which is a one year learning program before serving in the army for the regular three years. There are also those who go to Yeshiva Gavoha after high school and learn there for as long as they wish, and then serve for the standard three years.
“My family made aliya when I was six,” says Ra’anan. “We live in Bet Shemesh. I finished my 5 years in hesder but this year I stayed on as madrich for the overseas program. There is always a group of us that stay longer. Out of 35 who finished last year, 15 of us have stayed on. Those seeking more of a career go elsewhere right away. I find there’s a lot less of that ‘let’s rush to get on with our life’ here than in America. Often guys want to stay and learn more and gain from this kind of life style.”
I ask Ra’anan to explain his job as madrich.
“Basically my job is to help the guys integrate into the Israeli program, to make them comfortable. Yeshivat Otniel has 300 students. About 10 to 15 of them are in the overseas program. Otniel is located in the southern Hebron hills, between Chevron and Be’er Sheva, so not only are they far away from home in the States, they’re even far from their American friends in Yerushalayim. So I will try to get them those extra comforts, maybe an extra closet in their room, to help them acclimate. I also plan weekly tiyulim and other activities. I learn with them. Generally those who come are not your cookie cutter types, they are looking for a different experience and seeking to blend in more with the Israeli students.”
Both Eyal and Ra’anan agree that the uniqueness of Otniel is the combination of a high standard of learning coupled with emphasis on personal development in Avodat Hashem.
Ra’anan told me – “Usually when you hear about a yeshiva that encourages creative expression, you think of a place that doesn’t cater to serious learning but in Otniel there is both. In addition to the learning, the boys are given the freedom and tools to express themselves in other ways. It’s not anything official but for example, on Chanuka this year, they had an art exhibit in the bet midrash. It’s known that the guys in Otniel are talented and creative, so there were lots of different artworks displayed. Other students gave workshops in what they are good at. I gave a workshop on film and video.”
Eyal adds, “When I was checking out the different yeshivot hesder, I chose Otniel for its uncompromising high level of learning, yet with an emphasis on learning other subjects like chassidut and mussar. We also have throughout the year different chaburot (workshops). During our off times (like bein hasedarim), any older student who is talented in a certain area can form a chabura to teach those who are interested in his specialty, whether it be art, theater, music or photography. We also have a chabura called kelim l’bikoret tarbut. This is a chabura that gives us the tools to learn how to examine our surrounding culture critically. And on Fridays we have dancing. After lunch, boys will assemble in the dining room and we will dance. For fun, for the joy of it. It’s a vibrant place.”
Eyal describes the uniqueness of the rabbonim and the students, yet they are all together serving Hashem in harmony.
“We are also a big part of the Otniel settlement,” he continues. “Many of the residents are affiliated with the yeshiva. They are either the families of the rabbonim or in the management here. Some of the students are from the town as well, although most boys go away from home for yeshiva. Part of the yeshiva program is davka to have a connection with the people of the town. We go every Shabbat to our rosh yeshiva‘s house in Otniel. Sometimes we have classes in one of the family’s houses. These families see the yeshiva as a source of Torah. The fathers come some times to learn with their kids here. This is a beautiful thing in my eyes.”
I wonder why the yeshiva is located where it is, if it’s for Zionistic reasons.
Raanan explains, “I would say that it’s deeper than calling it simply a ‘Zionist’ reason. Otniel, in fact, is considered to be relatively moderate in its political views, and the atmosphere is certainly not in any way that of a stereotypical extremist right wing. The way I see it, the yeshiva is here because it is understood that as Jews in the land of Israel, there is a strong, deep connection with the actual land we live on, and that connection is expressed by living in places which may not be always the most comfortable areas to live in. Otniel, which by the way, is named after Otniel Ben Kenaz from Sefer Shoftim who is said to have lived here, is surrounded by Arab villages but we don’t feel that we need to be here in order to get on the nerves of our Palestinian neighbors. I also believe the yeshiva is here because it is a beautiful, secluded area in the Hebron hills and the roshei yeshiva wanted to create a space where the mind feels free and not closed in within crowded city borders.”
Eyal tells me he is not at all scared in Otniel. “In truth, I feel safer here than in my home in Givat Shmuel near Tel Aviv” he says.
As far as the students’ plans for the future, Eyal laughs and says,“ I am only 18, so my plans can change at any time. At this point, I see myself finishing hesder, then perhaps going to university for engineering. Hopefully, I’ll get married at one point.”
Ra’anan, on the other hand, is in his last year here. “I’m not 100% sure what I will be doing next year. This summer I will be going on shlichut with the Sochnut Yehudit to Australia. I will be teaching Jewish Identity and Zionism. Next year I might go to filming school. I’ve also taken one of the tests for the rabbanut haraishit in our kollel program here. So I always have the option of going into the rabbinate.
As we conclude, I reflect on the two young men I have interviewed. Staunch, believing, Torah true, mentchen who are ready to fight in all ways for what they believe in. he says. And I say, if Ra’anan and Eyal are examples of the kind of faith filled, authentic, idealistic, wholesome Jews Otniel produces then the yeshiva, and the Jewish nation, have much to be proud of.
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