Photo Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90
Israeli flag at the Kotel

We have faced many enemies who persecuted us in different ways. Pesach and Purim celebrate Hashem having saved us from those who threatened us physically – with slavery and with annihilation. Unlike the Egyptians and the Persians, the Greeks threatened us spiritually. They aimed not to enslave or kill us, but to force or convince us to abandon Jewish tradition.

Throughout the ages, many have sought to convert us to their religions and ideologies. Both of the religions that saw themselves as our successors, Christianity and Islam, tried to force and/or cajole conversion. Later, secular socialists and communists persuaded and later forced Jews to abandon Judaism.

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The Greeks suggested a different and more dangerous alternative. They and their Jewish sympathizers sought to reform Judaism and Jews in ways that would align Judaism with Greek culture. Jews were not being asked to abandon Judaism. They were asked to see it in a new way. Most significantly, Jews were asked to deny our unique relationship with Hashem and see Torah and mitzvot as parochial customs, not of heavenly origin.

The Grecian initiative was particularly dangerous because Jews would find changes (particularly ones that allowed them easier integration within broader society) easier to accept than conversion. The initiative threatened to change how Jews would forever view Judaism.

The Chashmonaim clearly identified and appreciated the gravity of the threat, and fought against the Greeks and Hellenists with the stated goal of protecting the purity of our Jewish religion and identity. Hashem’s assisting them ensured the continuation of a proper Jewish understanding of Judaism and of our unique relationship with Him.

For over 2,000 years, Chanukah has reminded Jews of the uniqueness of our Jewish identity and of our need to protect it. These messages have become more relevant and important in the centuries following the integration of Jews within broader society.

When Jews lived in ghettos and were barred from interaction with general society, they could more easily maintain their unique identity. When surrounding societies permitted interaction, assimilation grew. Though many took the extreme step of conversion or full assimilation, most Jews remained Jewish but reformulated Judaism in ways that fit with their cultural surroundings. Sadly, this has created a reality where millions of Jews have drifted away from Judaism and most of those who remain connected identify with secular understandings of Judaism and Jewish identity.

Even those who think of themselves as devoted Jews, dedicated to Torah and mitzvot, have been affected by this interaction with the social environment. The mission of engaging society with the hope of improving it and enriching ourselves often leads to the import of problematic ideas and cultural influences.

The issue is a most sensitive one for Jewish youth who mature into adulthood in an atmosphere permeated with the duality and tension between Jewish and the secular world views. On the one hand, they are taught to learn and appreciate Torah texts, be committed to a halachic life and develop a Jewish perspective on life. On the other, in addition to being devoted to secular studies with the goal of gaining acceptance to top universities, most are very much connected to pop and sports culture and deeply submerged in the broader world of secular social media. They inhabit multiple worlds – in the most challenging sense of the word.

This is why the post-high school year in Israel has become so important to the Modern Orthodox community. The experience not only exposes and connects our young adults to Eretz Yisrael and The State of Israel and strengthens their Torah knowledge and observance, but more importantly, it also gives them the opportunity to reflect on the place of Torah and Jewish values within their identity and lifestyle. The “lech lecha” experience of leaving their cultural milieu for a year and immersing themselves in Israeli yeshivot and seminaries has had a major impact on hundreds of thousands of Orthodox teenagers. Many of these teenagers decided to move to Israel (immediately or after a few years). The others returned home and dramatically impacted the religious life of Modern Orthodox communities around the world. They have been one of the main contributors to the miraculous renaissance of Modern Orthodox religious growth over the past 50 years.

As an organization focused on connecting Jews to Israel, Mizrachi has always been at the forefront of encouraging and facilitating the year in Israel.

Most recently, Mizrachi has played a critical role helping yeshivot and seminaries face unprecedented challenges. However, the past year saw a general cut from MASA, a program for gap-year students. MASA usually partners with yeshivas and seminaries to offer significant scholarships. Mizrachi thus formed a fundraising campaign that secured millions of dollars in support. When Covid regulations barred entry into Israel, Mizrachi worked with government officials to ensure the entry of yeshiva and seminary students and has continued working to help maintain all aspects of the experience.

Baruch Hashem, the recent WZO elections have put Mizrachi in a position to be able to assist the year in Israel in new additional ways. We look forward to maximizing these new opportunities.

Inspired by the goals and victory of the Chashmonaim, Mizrachi reinforces its commitment to strengthening the year in Israel with the aim of helping world Jewry connect with Israel and sharpen their religious identity.

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Rav Reuven Taragin is the Dean of Overseas Students at Yeshivat Hakotel and Educational Director of World Mizrachi - RZA. He lives with his wife Shani and their six children in Alon Shvut, Israel.