“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.”