Chaim grew up attending a serious yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Although he was of average intelligence, he was never able to concentrate during his long hours of Gemara study. His parents constantly pushed him to do better, even hiring expensive tutors to help him catch up. But it never seemed to work. He longed to express his abundant energy and creativity rather than keeping it bottled up inside. He needed a drastically different approach – one that fostered more than just book learning.
Although the haredi sector in Israel is known for encouraging students to learn in yeshiva and kollel full time, community leaders are now beginning to see the value of alternative programs for certain students that integrate vocational training along with Torah learning. While emphasis on widespread Torah study has its place and serves an important role in preserving Torah values, it also has a downside. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities today suffer from vast unemployment because the great majority never gains the basic skills and credentials required to obtain a job. This leaves an estimated two-thirds of adult males unemployed. If students like Chaim could be given a chance to let their talents blossom, they would be able to support themselves, their families, and the next generation of yeshivas.
Under the guidance of expert instructors, students learn to create a wide variety of items in the carpentry workshop, ranging from mezuzot to furniture for the dormitories. They have plans to sell their products outside the yeshiva
During his 25 years as the principal of a Talmud Torah in Bnei Brak, veteran educator Rabbi Dov Frank noticed that there was a critical track lacking in the haredi yeshiva system. “Our yeshivas are very rigorous and demanding, reaching for the highest degree of academic excellence. But unfortunately, not every child can sit and learn a full day,” Rabbi Frank said. He noticed that many children suffer from weaker intellectual capacity, ADD, hyperactivity, or emotional issues that prevent them from excelling in book learning. Together with Rav Aryeh Rubinfeld, he went on to create a place where students like the aforementioned can reach their fullest potential in a nonexclusively academic setting.
Thus was born Yeshivat Kfar Zeitim. Located on a pastoral moshav in the Lower Galilee overlooking Mount Arbel and the Kinneret, the yeshiva high school was established in 2003 to provide haredi teens with a quality yeshiva and vocational education. Today the yeshiva’s enrollment is 50+ boys ages 14-18 from throughout Israel and abroad. In the morning the students partake in serious Torah classes adapted for their unique learning needs, followed by workshops in computer science, electrical engineering, carpentry, or agriculture and husbandry. By graduation, students are fully certified to begin working in their chosen fields. Together with a handpicked staff of warm and talented rebbeim, social workers, and teachers, Kfar Zeitim provides its students with a supportive and therapeutic environment – enhancing their chances to become productive and positive members of their communities.
In addition to the students’ regular studies, the therapeutic activities foster creativity, self-expression, and physical activities such as horseback riding, music lessons, martial arts, and hiking. The students are involved in almost all of the construction and maintenance jobs on campus, as well as in tending to the grounds, cooking, cleaning the dorms and classrooms, and caring for farm animals. The carpentry track builds most of the dorm furniture, and the agriculture track plants and harvests the wheat and vegetables – all of which are either sold or used in the kitchen. The mayor of the Regional Council of the Lower Galilee, Motti Dotan, expressed his great excitement at seeing boys speaking Yiddish, in addition to Hebrew, while doing farm work.
Rabbi Eitan Botah teaching a small group of students
Seventeen-year-old Yosef learned at Kfar Zeitim for three years, and today he is a dorm counselor in the yeshiva and about to get his electrician’s certificate. “For years I dreamed of having a profession, and I always enjoyed physical activity,” he said. “It’s part of my nature. The yeshiva is the best thing that could have happened to me in my life. Here I found myself progressing in everything – in my learning, in my way of thinking, in my character traits, and in my perception of life – because I could finally think with peace of mind, without pressure.”
The staff works overtime in an attempt to discover each boy’s unique talents. Electrical engineering teacher Zachar Brodsky said that, “there’s no such thing as someone who isn’t successful at something. Everyone is capable; we just have to reveal the potential he has within.” As the boys succeed at small things, they realize that they can also succeed at bigger things. “It’s not a place that you come and learn, and then leave,” one boy said. “It’s a family. The staff really cares.”
All students are expected to participate in collective chores, including cooking and cleaning on a rotation. One student didn’t even know how to hold a mop when he first came to the yeshiva. Today he not only knows how to clean, but he takes great pride in it and has become extremely organized. “The fact that we were responsible for building the yeshiva ourselves means that we want to take care of it,” he said. “The group responsibility opens us up and builds us, improving our character traits and concern for one another and our surroundings.” On their own initiative the students started a cooperative kiosk on campus, selling drinks and snacks as well as a laundry service. In the near future they hope to expand to catering services, horseback riding tours, and bicycle rentals.
After graduating many students go straight to work, others serve in the IDF, and some even choose to continue learning in a mainstream yeshiva. “We give them the tools to succeed as adults, and help them develop an individual identity,” International Director Yonah David said. “They graduate the yeshiva connected to Torah Judaism, to their families, and to themselves, and are ready to become mature breadwinners. Kfar Zeitim gives them a future.”