Sunday, September 25, 2005

Responsible Brotherhood

The Secret Behind
A New Israeli Hassidic-Yeshiva-High

Erev Rosh HaShana 2017

 Full Disclosure:  I’m in love with this guy!

I’ve been so for decades.  Even before I met him. 

Which was just a week ago.

In a way, I feel like the child on the beach who’s been digging a tunnel in the sand since sunrise, relentlessly convinced he’d break through to the other side but never knowing exactly when and where; throwing his arms up a few times, huffing and puffing, but always returning to the dig … until finally, incredulously, feeling the vibrations of a mysterious other scratching towards him.


Their underground handshake connects worlds.

Truth be told, my digging has been going on much longer and more circuitously than his.  This Jew is really very talented and totally in the right time and place.  He has zoomed in on the needs of the klal, Observant Jewry, from just the right angle, making incredible progress from day one. 

But none of this mattered once we met.  For we were a study in contrasts towards the same aim.  The more we differed, the better.

Reb Menachem Bombach was born and raised within the deep recesses of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, to socially insular, religious zealots – otherwise known as hareidim or ultra-orthodox Jews.  I was born within the barren, laid back Mojave Desert, in the far northern reaches of Los Angeles County, California, to totally non-denominational, somewhere between atheistic and agnostic Jews – otherwise known as Jewish Americans, with an emphasis on the ish.  By age twenty, his only language was Yiddish, and his exposure to western ideas and values were left to his imagination.  For me at that age, I knew only English (ok, a little Spanish) and only western liberal ideas.  Orthodox anything was unimaginable.

Though he had been feeling deep gratitude to his idyllic community for the powerful values they had bequeathed him, he had always wondered how that would work for those outside the ghetto.  For me, once again, the flip side.  My big question was what it might be like to actually have a truth to die for.  I knew it was connected to my Jewishness, but had very little idea why.

You see, while both of my parents were raised in environments that took their Jewish identities for granted, they raised us in Jewish no-man’s land.  Oh, they provided me with rudimentary Hebrew by sending me to a year of Sunday school Bar-Mitzvah prep.  But it was just enough for me to know that I didn’t know a thing about my illustrious religious heritage.  I had never seen anyone don t’fillin nor shake a lulav, let alone learn Talmud. As for the identity of the congregation, it had vacillated for years between Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist, depending on which movement would send a more personable rabbi to get us through the holydays.

Still, I felt my Judaism deeply. Perhaps it was because truth seeking was in my DNA.  It’s certainly what led my father out of the poverty stricken, culture-shocked, Eastern European immigrant ghetto society of early 1900’s New York City.  His need to “qualify” himself, as he’d put it, catapulted him as far away from that intellectually primitive cultural prison as he could go.  Yet it brought him no happiness. And certainly no healthier Jewish identity.

As I began considering a profession, I knew it had to do with education and psychology.  I believed in the potential of young people to do moral somersaults.  That’s when I bumped into Orthodox Judaism.  And slowly but surely, Hossidus.

It was a difficult dance to do, between the world of my upbringing and that of Hossidus. Especially the type that was based in Mea Shearim, like the community to which I eventually brought my family.  But I had some good teachers.  And I never stopped learning on both sides of the fence.

In an online Hebrew interview, Reb Menachem, who now holds an M.A. in Public Policy from the Hebrew University, talks about how it genuinely pains him to see his brethren wallowing in ignorance, not even knowing “the difference between the present simple and the present progressive.”  Unbelievable, I thought after hearing that.  How many years have I been teaching English in Israel, sometimes right around the corner from him, convinced that the value of these grammar rules runs much deeper than a simple means for passing matriculation tests, but never believing that a home-grown hossid could understand that. No doubt.  

There is a SIMPLE way of being in the present and a PROGRESSIVE way.  The holy tongue doesn’t have that distinction.  It’s basically all or nothing.  Hence studying a language like English, properly, can open up one’s eyes to a more nuanced and enriching approach to the world.  Which allows for a much healthier way of applying one’s Judaism “out there.”

When I first read about Bombach on the Jewish blog article, “A Profile in Courage,” I was totally hyped.  The article made a big deal about extremist hareidi aggression against the fact that his school is teaching secular subjects to normative hareidi youth – and his principled willingness to call them on it.  That made him and his cause very attractive to me.  On the other hand, maybe he’s considered a persona non grata in my community.  I decided to call a community authority.

“Oh yes, HaMidrasha HaHassidit,” the Rav immediately piped up.  “There’s some commotion going on about this school, which I try to stay clear of.  But if you want I can find out more for you.”


A few days later the Rav directs me: “It’s alright. Go ahead and meet him.  But please don’t publicize my name as supporting it.”


That’s all I needed.  I can do underground kinship. I called up Reb Menachem and summarized the circumstances through which I had learned about him, concluding with some thoughts about the teaching I might be able to offer his school.  He warmly encouraged me to visit him at his school at the first opportunity.


It’s All About Simkha    

R’ Menakhem, shlit”a
 I got to the right address but couldn’t find an entrance to the school.  I asked a normal looking yeshiva student from an established hassidic yeshiva next door.  He respectfully pointed me to a small pathway.  “Up there and to the left,” he chimed.
How appropriate, I mused.  Lofty and left!  But honestly now, a normative hareidi neighbor means something.

I reached locked gates.  I looked around at the empty parking lot and rolling Judean hills and concluded that this lone building must be it.  I snooped further and finally one gate creaked open.  Its lock had not been fastened.  It felt a little mysterious.  Like one is only supposed to sneak in here!

Entering the building, I found no leads. No signs indicating where there are classes or administration.  Just a fairly clean and normative looking school building.  When I asked some workers where to find the ones running the place, they had no idea.  Finally a sweet, young hassidische teen, dressed in black and white, sporting medium length peyos (side locks) but having no jacket nor externally draped tallis katan (shirt-like prayer shawl) typical of serious hossidim, came walking down the hall and asked if I needed help.  He was glad to take me to the head office.  He had a twinkle in his eye.  As we rounded the corner, I could see why. 

Reb Menachem was standing in the doorway, eyes aflame with affection!
Love at first sight, I tell you.  I could feel that wonderful “sand” between his fingers as we grasped hands.
He offered coffee.  When I told him no need for sugar, he was pleased.  As if to say he understood that neither of us were interested in sugar-coating anything. 

“Tell me all about you,” he lilted.  He was genuinely interested.  I knew his English was excellent and thus liberally used mine.  He was cool going in and out of English and Hebrew. 

I surprised myself by telling him how my Jewish journey actually began from meditating over a secular Israeli song.  Hannah Senesh, the Israeli heroine who parachuted behind Nazi lines, only to be captured, tortured to extract information she never gave up, and executed, wrote a poem that was eventually put to a haunting melody that was taught to my summer Jewish camp. “Ke-li, Ke-li, sh’lo yig’amer ha’olam… t’fillas ha’adam.” It was a prayer for always being able to pray.  “Learning about the privilege of prayer really ignited my young soul,” I told him. “I knew I didn’t know how to pray, but I also knew there was probably nothing as important as learning how to do so.”  He was genuinely touched. As if he had never imagined that Jewish sparks, fallen so far, could reignite like that.

“You’re like Avraham (our first patriarch, who found G-d totally on his own),” he graciously suggested.  Obviously he had a spark of Avraham driving him as well.
We discovered we had a Migdal HaEmek connection – the town where he did his first teaching and I did my first stint of kollel (adult Torah academy) learning, though mine was about ten years earlier.  Then we turned to the nuts and bolts.

“I’m not sure if you realize,” he said with utter seriousness, “but the emptiness in the hearts of the average yeshiva bakhor these days is overwhelming.  They need this kind of education for the sake of their yiddishkeit! I’m not trying to bring them to a new spiritual place; I’m trying to give them tools for maintaining and qualifying the spirituality which their yeshivas have been trying to give them and are not succeeding.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Does he really believe that secular studies can enhance the hassidic way of life?
“Absolutely.  But it’s not just those studies.  Here, let me show you what we’re doing with the life-skills classes.”

He rolled out a full-scale curriculum for teaching interpersonal relations, self-discipline, communication, money management and the like.  There were also music classes and computers.

“Most important,” he stressed, “is teaching them simkha.  How to find Jewish joy in all they do.  Truly, that’s what I believe is my biggest success.”
That’s when I knew it was a match. Simkha is at the root of the hassidic enterprise.

This hossid was for real.

I began asking him about fundraising, and he listened intently.  He really would love to have someone on his team like me for reaching the English speaking community.  Then I had an idea.

“How ‘bout I do an interview with you to publish on some American Jewish media outlet, and we could use that as a springboard.”

He was gung-ho. 

We shmuessed some more about the different types of religious paths from which these boys come, the names of rabbonim who quietly support him (which includes some major leaders from the non-hassidic community) and how a certain eclecticism has come to characterize the school. “They learn the value of akhdus (unity) like never before.  I would have never believed it.  But they’re longing to learn about each other’s paths.  I’d like to believe it works because we make it very clear that they are not coming here to leave the paths of their upbringing.  We are expanding them.”

“But aren’t the purists in every camp up in arms?” I asked.

“Well, some are.  But not the one’s in the know,” he explained.  “You see, there are basically three levels of yeshiva students these days:  Top, middle, bottom.  The top third are those who are clearly capable of growing where they are.  We don’t touch them.  They are kadosh-kedoishim (holy of holies),” he says, kissing his fingers and blowing it up to the heavens. “We believe that Klal Yisroel (our sacred nation) gains much more from encouraging them to excel there.  The bottom third, in contrast, need careful, specialized help.  That’s not us either.  Our job is to stop the dizzying slide of the middle third into deep frustration and worse.  We don’t want them to lose their pnimius (healthy inner lives) by staying in an educational framework that is not developing their unique talents and needs for functioning in the world.”

On that note, he suggested we go meet some boys whom he believes exude pnimius. First, we peeked into the computer room.  About eight bakhorim were there, probably 16-year olds, all at desks, focused on their tasks. There was one male instructor, leaning over the screen of a student, assisting him. The atmosphere was dignified, clean and diligent. They all looked up at us and smiled warmly. They were obviously doing well.

As we turned to leave, we bumped into a younger boy – about 14 – whom Reb Menachem immediately asked, “Tell us, are you happy here?”
The boy beamed. “I would have never believed it.  After years in heider where I had trouble keeping up all those hours of only talmud, now when I’m learning I feel so good.  

Because I know that there are other things I can learn too.”
Another boy, 17, with long peyos and wearing a traditional black vest over his tallis katan, shared with me that he was from a very large and established hassidus in which his identity was enmeshed.  It was very hard for him to leave that environment.  But now, he believes, he has come to appreciate the distinction of his hossidus by meeting boys from other communities.  “No one tries to influence you here to take on different customs or beliefs.  It helps you realize the uniqueness of who you are.”
I was definitely impressed and let him know.  We made plans for the official interview in another week.  And then he said something that really touched. 
“You’ve made my day!  I can see that you are a truth seeker.  You are interested in this school for the right reasons.  It’s good to know that one’s not alone.”

“There’s A Very-Very-Very Big Problem”

I recognized on his desk a picture of a hassidic
Rebbe I knew, blessing his students. I decided to
call him.                                        

“Yes, I know Menachem Bombach,” the Rebbe heartfully responded.  “There are people who have come out sharply against his ideas.  But I respect him.  He sat with me at length before he began the Midrasha, and afterwards he brought some of his students to be tested in limudei koidesh (religious studies).  He is very sincere and genuinely pained over the very-very-very (yes, exact quote) big problem of yeshiva boys not learning well in standard yeshivas.  No one knows what to do with them.  

Of course we don’t want to provide any publicity for secular studies for boys who, ideally, should be immersed in kedusha (holiness).  At the same time we can’t just let them wander the streets and slip into internet addiction.  So I told him that I’d be happy to write him a letter of support but at the same time, if an opponent would ask me for a letter condemning hassidic schools with secular studies – I’d write him one too!  Because I believe in both.  It all depends on the circumstance.”

He concluded that as long as Bombach does not call the school a yeshiva and is not seeking to promote his curriculum as an ideal alternative to the traditional yeshiva curriculum, but merely a stopgap accommodation, he’ll continue to support it under the radar.   As for me working with him: “By all means.  It could be a fantastic combination.  I bless you both with much success.”

That was all I needed to hear.  I tossed out a one line email summing that up.  My new brother responded immediately with “Wonderful.  We’re on for Sunday.” 

Hareidi Humanism 

  “I’d like to steer clear of politics,” I mentioned as I sat down.  “I’m more interested in you, the man, and the educational reality of your school.”  He surprised me by being quite nonchalant about the whole topic.  “The truth,” he tossed back, “is on my side.  And the majority of the hareidi world is supportive or at least sympathetic to the cause.  In any case, I’d prefer that the story be less about me and more about the ideas driving the school.  In fact, I’ve seen the article that you sent me and I don’t understand why I’m being seen as a hero.  This school was bound to be founded by someone.”

The tape recorder was now set up.   Every word that follows is virtually verbatim.  There was a decent amount of Hebrew which I strove to faithfully translate, and I sum up discussions that if fully reported would have taken away from a smooth read, but the basic exchange is the real, unvarnished deal.

YY:  So where did it all begin?

(He starts speaking of his fascinating childhood education in the very extreme Dushinsky heider in the Mea Shearim district, followed by the Viznitz hassidic yeshiva in Benei Brak and then the Lithuanian Mir yeshiva in Jerusalem.  But soon we both realize that the time is flying and we should focus more on what kicked off his career).

MB: I really don’t know why Rabbi Grossman (from Migdal HaEmek) took me on as a counselor to work with Russian immigrants.  Because I had no experience.  But you know, in the north there aren’t so many qualified employees, so since I was willing to live in Afula – why not.  I think I made many mistakes in the beginning (…) but one thing was clear.  From the moment I began to work as a professional, I realized I must study.  I mean, I felt in the beginning like an Am HaAretz (ignoramus).

YY:  Wasn’t there opposition (to your leap into academic studies)?  The way we see things in the west, for someone from your background to make the decision to go to the Hebrew U. is a radical thing, almost heresy!

MB: Well, in general, I’m very individual.

YY: Independent.

MB:  Yes.  I’m true to what I believe.  I always have been.  I’m not a conformist. I could never live a conformist way of life. Conformism for me is like cognitive prison.  I’m simply not capable of doing what everyone else is doing (…) So too here, I saw the need to study and develop skills – so I did.  Eventually I started the Mekhina (program at Hebrew U. for helping hareidim to acclimate to the university) and began to study at the Mandel Institute (for exceptional educators).

YY:  It all just developed naturally?

MB:  Different things just happened.  I tell you, when you travel to Haifa at night, you go 30 meters here and 30 meters there.   Only at the end when you look back you connect the dots. 

YY:  But wasn’t there opposition in the family?

MB:  Ok.  My father was Satmar.  But he died when I was young and I was raised, from age six, by my mother’s second husband.  He was a very big Talmid Khakham (Torah scholar).  And we had many, many discussions. In the end, we got to a place where my parents, including my mother – whom I truly, greatly respect – just didn’t understand what I was about.  It got to the point where our relationship just, well, it just really isn’t good.  Oh, I come to her, and honor her, but the relationship has become very, very weak.  She simply doesn’t understand …

YY: It’s as if you’ve become in her eyes “Off The Derekh” (spiritually wayward)?

MB:  Yes!  Exactly.  I had become Off The Derekh.  She looks at my children as if they’re off, at my wife as if she’s off.  All because we have strayed so far from the (Mea Shearim) groove.  We look different.  We act different.  Think different.  Really – Off The Derekh.

YY: And the wife?

MB:  Oh, yes.  My wife and I – we’re totally together.

YY:  There was no novelty for her in your way; nothing she had to get used to?

MB:  No, my wife and I, pshhh – we’ve been working together from the beginning.  This is a success story.  21 years now!

YY:  How about your children.  Are you not worried about them suffering from your non-conformism?  And if they would choose differently from you – would you be accepting?

MB:  Tomorrow, if my child would choose to go off the derekh, I’d hug and kiss him.  And be hurt!  Because I deeply believe in my way.  But I’d respect him.  I’m not a paternalist. I don’t believe in prescribing for anyone else how to live.  I am raising, first and foremost, a human being.  Afterwards he needs to make his own choices (…) In general, I honor every human being.  Because he was created in the image of G-d.  Jews and non-Jews.  It doesn’t matter to me.  They are all human beings (…)

YY: Alright.  I can’t hold back …

MB:  (heartily laughs)

YY: You had said before we began that you didn’t want to be related to as a hero, on a human level.  Just your ideas.  But the truth is that you are speaking like what I’d call a hareidi humanist. 

MB:  That’s right.

YY:  Well, that’s a hero!  There aren’t many like you.

MB:  That’s right.  But I’ve had mentors.  Who was the first model for me?  HaRav (Aharon) Lichtenstein (associated with more academic and zionistic orthodoxy). I had a personal connection with him.  Not quantity time, but quality.  It was enough to get inspired (…)  He, for me, was an example of how to know G-d in everything you do.  A Jew, no matter where he is, can find G-d.  That’s core Baal Shem Tov (the philosophy of the founder of Hossidus).  He explains it differently.  But (as far as I’m concerned) it’s totally Baal Shem Tov.  He learns that one can find true spirituality even through gentile means.  This (difference from the way hossidus keeps as clear as possible from gentile ways) is a very complex issue, which I can’t easily explain.  But the point is that he was in touch with WORLDS.  He knew G-d in all his ways.  And (he taught that) this was always the way of our great leaders.  In everything they did, they’d be sanctifying G-d’s name (…) 

YY:  Whoa.  Ummm, ehhh.

MB: (Laughs heartily)

YY:  I love you!  I love everything you’re saying. I want to speak with you for hours.  But if we’re really going to do this (project of presenting your philosophy as a unique way of being hassidic in the modern world), there’s a million dollar question.

MB:  Yeah, yeah …

YY:  I know this sounds like a harsh slogan, but I don’t mean it that way.

MB:  Yeah, yeah …

YY:  I mean, it sounds as if you’re, eh … Modern Orthodox in hareidi garb!

MB:  Alright.  I’ll tell you why not.  I’ll explain it to you.  I mean I absolutely agree (with your presumption), but I’ll now clarify.  I make a distinction like that of HaRav S.R. Hirsch.  He spoke of the difference between religious separation and entrenchment, or fortress mentality.

(He turns to his Hebrew Hirsch Torah commentary on Genesis 20:1, which he has on the computer. The word hit’batzrut is used for the latter, which we learn out with enthusiasm.  Hirsch explains that hit’batzrut will never further the goals of genuine religious development since it breeds fear of what is foreign as opposed to passion about what is true. 

On that note, now that the computer is open, my host offers to show some Hebrew news clips interviewing him in contrast to some extremist hareidi politicians. He laughs when they give expression to their virulently anti-secular positions, then reiterates that what he shares with all hareidim is the embracing of the need for separating between religious and normative society.  It’s just that his notion of separation is, like Hirsch’s, essentially positive.  It certainly should not turn Jew against Jew, hareidi against hareidi – as we see increasingly happen).

MB: They (the extremist hareidim) are coming from nonsensical hatred.  It’s a sickness.  A real sickness. (In contrast,) I remain hareidi because I believe in the distinct value of “The World of Torah.”  To the extent that those who are capable of full-time learning really don’t need to know anything else.  I really believe this. 

YY:  Aren’t there Modern Orthodox who believe this too?  Do you really think there’s such a sharp division in philosophies over this issue?

MB: I believe that the deepest passion of mankind is learning Torah – the way of HaKadosh Barukh hu (the blessed Holy One). I truly believe that.  One can argue over what exactly constitutes learning Torah.   But what’s clear to me is that regarding those who are capable, who have the depth and stamina for living full time within the study halls of Torah and to contribute novellae – there’s nothing higher than that.  And they don’t need any other knowledge, whatsoever.  In living this way, they’re doing Tikkun Ha’olam, repairing the world.

But all the rest of us – 70 percent or so – need more than that.

So that’s one point.  Secondly, I really do believe in the need for religious separation (from the rest of society).  The Modern Orthodox have different values.  One big one is the State of Israel.  It’s really one of the greatest differences between us.  Another point is that they try very hard to integrate into the greater society – to the extent that, in our view, they sink.  This (orientation) facilitates assimilation, which is now around 40-50%.  Therefore I think the hareidi model works excellently.  It has numerous mechanisms for self-preservation. 

This can’t be overstated.  In order to really self-preserve, we (those of us who are not full time Torah learners) need to know the world.  Including the externals.  This (idea of knowing the world not in order to immerse within it but to manage it in a way that furthers our service of G-d) is a huge-huge difference (between the hareidi and modern orthodox world).

YY:  (Deep breath).  Hmmm.  Okay. I’m with you. And I’m very, very thankful we’ve made progress on these topics …

MB: You know – you are making therapy on me!  It’s important to speak this out.

YY: (laughing) Yeah, yeah.  Of course.  No one’s an island.

MB:  Absolutely.

YY: A few final questions.  This place is called “HaMidrasha HaHassidit.” What is the difference between hareidi and hassidi?  And why do you stress hassidi?  Do you feel this is a place, in the main, only for hassidim?

MB: The answer is affirmative.  First of all, the whole idea is totally based on the teachings of hossidut (the literature which we often learn with the students). To start off with – the whole point of externals. (I ask to better understand this.  He uses as an example that he insists on all his students praying according to the hassidic custom of wearing a hat, jacket and gartel – prayer belt.  He does this despite the fact that it seems to take away the kind of religious autonomy usually cherished by those involved in the wider world.  It takes me some time to catch his point but eventually I get it that he believes such customs offer crucial consistency to the principle of extending one’s service of G-d even into the outside world).Secondly, hassidut is teaming with a number of very strong motifs, like simkha in serving G-d, and transporting the study hall with you wherever you go.

YY:  You say that is a purely hassidic idea?

 MB:  Absolutely.  Non-hassidim distinguish sharply between life within and without the study hall.  (An interruption occurs and he needs to briefly step outside to relate to the students.)

They are so happy – it’s unbelievable.  And they work hard.  Believe me!  They are happy.  Simply happy.   When I was in yeshiva I was like (he makes a sour face)!  That’s how it was in yeshiva.  Pressure.  All the time pressure. 

They are so happy – it’s unbelievable.  And they work hard.  Believe me!  They are happy.  Simply happy.   When I was in yeshiva I was like (he makes a sour face)!  That’s how it was in yeshiva.  Pressure.  All the time pressure. 

YY:  So what is your explanation about why this happens?

MB:  Why?   Because they are not fulfilled.  Everyone needs to find his …

YY:  Niche.

MB:  Niche.  But also he needs to be r-e-s-p-e-c-t-e-d.  Respect.  (He goes on to explain how he had to let a good educator go because somewhere he didn’t totally respect every student).  Here we give respect to every single kid.  They are human beings.  None of us should have any advantage over them.  I mean, I have a position here (which requires from me to have them show extra respect) – for the sake of taking care of their needs.  But at the same time I must respect them.

YY:  In that I am assuming that every religious Jewish system agrees with you.  There are no approaches that are against respecting the students, are there?

MB: I have no idea.  I can’t say yes – because in my experience, when I was in heider, it’s not like they outright disrespected us, but you know, they’d look at you when you’d act up, like ‘go home to your father!’  We were just stuff for them. Objects.

YY:  It’s really unbelievable.

(He notes that the true hassidic way is imbued with the opposite ethic; concerned, first and foremost, with the health of the soul.  He also stresses that this is far from being ethnically discriminating, as some hassidic yeshivas are criticized for being, since he has accepted a number of boys from serious Middle Eastern Jewish upbringings – as long as they accept the crucial customs, like the general dress code, which he believes unites all hossidim).

YY:  Are all your educators hassidim?  Do you make a point of including a wide variety?

MB:  Yes.  This is one of our messages.

(At this point he shifts into didactics, writing on the board behind him a whole formula for mature identity, apparently as he is used to teaching at the Mandel Institute.  Identity includes knowledge of what it is with which you are identifying and practice of its particulars.  His hassidic educators are respectively not just different in regards to the names of the communities where they pray, but in their knowledge and conscious devotion to keeping up the ways of those holy traditions.

(We meander some more into all sorts of anecdotes about his students and educators, and then he insists we join the school for dinner.  It’s substantial, and the boys eating there have impressive decorum.  I meet a wonderful teacher – a Karliner hossid and teacher of civics and history, fully qualified, also American but fluent in Yiddish.  We all three begin speaking about how to differentiate between the hassidic boys learning here and those in standard hassidic yeshivas.  We take the discussion back up to his office, where I begin gathering my things)

Time for another Sara Schneirer

  “You know,” the hassidische non-Rosh-Yeshiva High School dean conspiringly tells us.  “The issue of kedusha (guarding oneself from impure sexual thoughts and actions) is THE big issue in every hassidic yeshiva.  I actually believe that in this school, in many cases, we are educating for that better than they.  Because hormones are hormones, especially when you’re not busy.  So not only do we keep the boys busy with various studies, but we provide them with a room for physical exercise.  Getting all that raw male energy out is very healthy.”

We both nod and then offer each other warm New Year wishes.  The Karliner parts ways. 

I turn to Reb Menachem and ask, on a mischievous note, if what he’s doing is more radical than what Sara Schneirer did (exactly a century ago when she blazed the trail for eastern european orthodox Jewish girls being formally educated in both religious and secular studies). “There’s something to what you’re saying,” he smiles with an interesting sense of inner conviction.  “She, too, got flak at first but was quietly supported by major leaders of the Torah world.”

I have to admit, I couldn’t help but feel at that moment that I was standing in the shadow of a real hero.  True, the idea may be bigger than the man.  And I doubt that the mythic Sara was in need of soul sisters from the other side of the world to give her “therapy.”  But she was also not up against decades of fortress mentality insisting on Torah-only or bust.  The ladies’ predicament was no-learning versus radical secularization.

Each era has its own trials.

Ours, I suspect, revolves around a distinctly responsible brotherhood.  Menachem Bombach cannot do it on his own, nor can we radically substitute his model for the old.  We need to continue supporting the old model for the right people while providing channels, even if they’re underground, for those who have other needs.  And then guide them to grasp the hands of the many others who do, too.

As we prayerfully remind ourselves these days when the celestial books are opened for Tsaddikim (the righteous), Benonim (the common) and R’shaiim (major sinners):  Our job is to present our case for being written and inscribed, at the very least, not in the bottom third.  After meeting rabbeinu Menachem, I think I understand better the danger of shooting too hastily, too obsessively, for the top.  Klal Yisroel needs to know that there is a valid option of diving into the middle and then working, in quiet, responsible brotherhood, up the ladder.

Y.Y. Bar-Chaiim
Elad, Israel

A Few English Net References:

Menachem Bombach | Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family ...

Menachem Bombach | J.F.N conference | מנחם בומבך

Alternative yeshiva draws protests for teaching secular subjects | The ...

 More information (in Hebrew) on this institution available here: (link) 


Other, Relevant Articles by the Writer:

The Distinction of Slonim 1 - A Simple Jew - blogger

The Distinction of Slonim 2 - A Simple Jew - blogger

The Distinction of Slonim 3 - A Simple Jew - blogger