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.