It seems that it’s impossible to write about orthodox education in Israel without at least mentioning Rav Menachem Bombach, founder of the first Chassidic High School in Beitar which also teaches general studies to its students.
Rav Bombach has become something of an internet celebrity in recent months, after a video of his school hosting a memorial service for the fallen soldiers of the IDF went viral. Bombach was raised in an exclusively Yiddish-speaking environment in Mea Shearim, and attended the Dushinsky cheder, before attending the Vizhniter Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, and then the Mir Yeshiva.
After his marriage, he started looking for work to support his family, and was given a job by Rav Dovid Grossman, head of the Migdal Ha’Eder educational institutions in the north of Israel, to become a dorm counsellor working with Russian immigrants in Afula.
Bombach quickly realized that, to put it in his own words: “I didn’t know anything” – so he decided to go back to school, despite not knowing a word of Hebrew. He got his first degree, a BA in Education, from Moreshet Yaakov College, then followed that up with an MA in Public Policy from Hebrew University.
“I understood that if I want to work with kids, I had to have some basic knowledge,” he explains. But getting that knowledge was hard, very hard. But Bombach persevered – and then decided that he wanted to forge a path for other people in the chareidi world to also get access to higher education, and the job opportunities that presents.
“If there are no doctors, no lawyers, no engineers in the chareidi community, how can we contribute to the State of Israel?” he asks. “By 2028, 40% of all first graders will be chareidi children. And 460,000 children between the ages of 0-14 will be chareidi.”
So, Bombach decided to begin a mechina, or preparation programme, for chareidi Jews who wanted to go on to university – but 50% were dropping out. When he asked the students why they were dropping out, they explained it was just too taxing to take in so much new information in one shot. At that point, Bombach decided to open up a new high school, the Midrasha Chassidi, in Beitar, that would combine high-level Torah learning and chassidut with the ability to get a high school matriculation certificate, or bagrut.
In a number of his interviews, Bombach has explained that in his view, there are basically three levels of yeshiva students, which he defines as the ‘kadosh kadoshim’ top third who are first-rate learners and clearly doing well in the existing framework. Then, there is the bottom third that Bombach believes more specialized help. His focus is on the middle third, which he believes are at risk of being deeply frustrated by an educational framework that isn’t helping them to develop their unique talents, and to gain the skills they require to be able to actually play an active role in the world.
So Bombach’s goal is first and foremost practical: to ensure that more of the kids who can’t sit and learn Talmud all day are getting the life skills and basic education they need to be able to enter the work force in some capacity, and earn a decent living for themselves and their families.
But there’s more to it than that. Bombach wants to create an educational system in the chareidi world which is based on the love of Torah, and the pursuit of truth, not just fear of ‘falling off the derech’, and hatred of other Jews.
In another interview, Bombach talked about the “emptiness” in the heart of many yeshiva students, and how the right education isn’t just required for their future work prospects: it’s also required for their neshamas.
By education, Bombach doesn’t just mean music classes, mathematic lessons and interpersonal skills. He’s talking about something much more fundamental: “The most important thing is teaching them simcha,” he says.
Rav Bombach is clearly walking a very important path, but it’s also taking him onto a very narrow bridge, and that’s reflected in the sharp divide between the people who love what he’s doing, and the people who see it as a dangerous threat to the sanctity of Torah learning.
Many rabbinic authorities will admit that no-one really knows what to do with the boys who simply aren’t cut out to learn Torah all day in a regular yeshiva. But publically, they can’t be seen to endorse anything less than the ‘ideal’ lifestyle of full-time Torah learning, because – that is still the ideal for an observant Jewish man.
It’s just that this ‘ideal’ is not working so well for large segments of the chareidi community. So in the meantime, Bombach is trying to pioneer a model of education that provides an alternative to the ‘ideal’ lifestyle while still preserving it as the undisputed ‘ideal’ of chareidi education.
He’s clear that anyone who can learn Torah all day should continue, and not immerse themselves in secular studies. But for everyone else – which Bombach estimates to be around 70% of the chareidi population – there has to be another way. It seems that most people in the chareidi world probably agree with this assessment.
But the burning question is what this ‘other way’ actually should be.
- Much of the material for this article was gathered from the ‘Jews you Should Know’ Podcast by Rabbi Ari Koretzky. You can hear the interview yourself here: https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/jews-you-should-know/episode-050-the-chareidi-LGqwzNaDKVH/