Tragedy Compounded

The tragic loss of ten high school students – nine females and one male – last week in a flash flood in Israel’s South sickened Jews around the world by it sheer senselessness. When young Israeli soldiers lose their lives in battle, at least their parents know that their children died fighting to defend their country and the nearly seven million Jews living here. Even training accidents are understood as the consequence of challenging, live-fire exercises necessary to prepare soldiers for actual combat.

But the parents and loved ones of those lost last week have no such consolation. The danger of flash floods in the Dead Sea area from unseasonal rains is well known, and there were ample warnings for all those who were heedful. One of the students killed reacted on WhatsApp to the news that the hike was going ahead by stating, “We are all going to be killed.”

The ten high school students were preparing to enter the Bnei Tzion pre-military academy (mechina) this coming school year. In general, the students in the pre-military academies are some of Israel’s most idealistic and deepest youth. They spend an extra year prior to military service learning about the history of Zionism, Jewish history, and Israeli society. A very high percentage go on to serve as officers in the IDF and to assume high positions in Israeli society. Selection for the mechinot is highly competitive, which may be one reason that many of the students went along with last week’s hike despite their misgivings.

Tzur Alfi, who gave up his life to save numerous fellow hikers, typifies the kind of Israeli youth who join the mechinot. Several of those lost last week had already been publicly recognized for their leadership talents.

The first mechina, Eli, opened in 1988 to offer one year of comparatively intense Torah learning to national religious young men who did not want to commit to the full five years required by most Hesder yeshivos. Its purpose, and that of the mechinot that followed, was to strengthen religiously observant boys about to enter the maelstrom of the army – “to nail their kippot to their head.”

Ten years later, the first secular mechina, Nachshon, opened. Its goal was to provide a year in which to fill the void of Jewish identity of products of the national school system. Growing up in the “Jewish state” is not enough in the eyes of Col. (res.) Gilad Olshein, the founder of Nachshon, to provide those entering the IDF with an answer to the question, “Why does the collective existence of the Jewish people matter so much that I am asked to give up three years of my life and perhaps my life itself” to protect that collective existence?

Though today there are more than twice as many mechinot catering to secular Jewish youth than those established for Torah learning – 45 to 20 – the concept remains linked for many to the national religious community. When news of last week’s tragedy broke, Ha’aretz’s comments section was soon filled with a torrent of hatred of the national religious community and ridicule that their G-d had not saved them. In tone, if not numbers, the comments served as a reminder of the dark days after the Rabin assassination, when to be seen on the street in a kippah was to invite attacks from complete strangers.

IN 2011, COL. GILAD OLSTEIN, the director of three mechinot under the Nachshon banner and today the chairman of the council of mechinot, approached Mrs. Zila Schneider, the founder and director of Kesher Yehudi, an organization devoted to bringing together chareidim and secular Jews through the study of Torahand asked her to develop a program for his three mechinot that would both introduce his chanichim to basic Torah concepts and to chareidi Jews. Without those elements, Olshtein felt, it was impossible to truly link the participants in his program to their roots. One of his goals, he says, was to ensure that his chanichim take pride in their Jewish brothers who dedicate themselves to learning Torah.

The Kesher Yehudi mechina program has grown by leaps and bounds since then. And far more impressive, that growth has come from the non-religious mechinot seeking to join the program. This school year, there are 14 participating mechinot, and five more are already signed up to join next year. Each mechina is between fifty and sixty chanichim, approximately equally divided between males and females. That means that this year, over 700 secular Israeli youth are involved in an ongoing relationship with a young avreich or the wife of an avreich.

Bnei Tzion was one of the mechinot signed up for next year, and those killed in the flood would have been part of that program. Just the day before the tragic flash flood, Kesher Yehudi and Bnei Tzion finalized plans for a preliminary “getting-to-know” you meeting between the incoming class in the mechina and the Kesher Yehudi volunteers.

The thought of what was so close to having been and now can never be weighs heavily on Mrs. Schneider this week. Her passion for the mechina program is largely driven by the thought that no Jewish soldier should ever be on the battlefront and not know that he has a Father in Heaven, Who cares about him and has given him a special mission in this world.

The hikers were only five minutes from their destination when the flood waters hit. But now they will never hear that message.

THE IMPACT OF THE KESHER YEHUDI MECHINA PROGRAM has been recognized not only by the mechina directors clamoring to join the program, but by outside observers as well. In 2016, Kesher Yehudi was awarded the Jerusalem Unity Prize, which honors the three yeshiva students kidnapped and brutally murdered in the summer of 2014, by President Reuven Rivlin. The organization’s chief advocate in the prize deliberations was then outgoing Chief of Staff Gen. Benny Gantz, who had observed the impact of the program on soldiers’ motivation. Similarly, Mr. Eli Levanon, Director of the Jewish Identity branch of the Religions Ministry, has written, “The activities of Kesher Yehudi with the mechinot . . . bring participants to a much deeper Jewish identity, both individually and collectively, and provide a tremendous boost to their motivation as the begin military service.”

That program consists of a basic curriculum of ten fundamental topics in Judaism, including: Creation, The Meaning of Jewish Nationhood, Shabbos, The Written and Oral Torah, Chosen People, Transmission of the Torah, Prayer, Women in Judaism, and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. The mechina chanichim meet with their chavrusos once monthly over the course of the school year, sometimes in conjunction with a lecture, to learn materials related to one of the core topics.

The relationships formed are the key to the success of the program. Mrs. Schneider stresses to each and every one of the 6,000 chareidi women and men who have participated in Kesher Yehudi chavrusos over the years, “If you are only doing this as a ma’aseh chesed for an ignorant chiloni Jew, if you do not believe that you have something to gain every time you meet a fellow Jew, this is not the program for you.”

When an expecting chareidi woman or one with an infant in tow makes the effort to meet her younger chavrusah at the mechina, it conveys to the younger chavrusah how precious she is in her chareidi chavrusah’s eyes and how precious the Torah is to her that she is so eager to share it.

For many chanichim, the Shabbaton spent with their chavrusah’s family makes the deepest impression and is the catalyst for the greatest change. And it brings the relationship between the chavrusos to an entirely different level. The Shabbatons are meticulously planned. A recent one in Ramat Beit Shemesh began at the Ahavas Shalom shul, where the American-born, chassidic rov, Rabbi Daniel Feiver, danced with each of the mechina members there. And the next day, the chanichim met Rav Moshe Sternbuch and heard him give a shiur in his yeshiva. Every experience over Shabbos helped them realize that for Shabbos observant Jews, Shabbos is not a burden, filled with restrictions, but a delight and the highlight of the week.

At least one participant told Rabbi Avi Kook, the coordinator for Ramat Beit Shemesh, shortly after the Shabbaton that he has begun Shabbos observance. Noa Harari is another example of the potential impact of the Kesher Yehudi Shabbaton. When she showed up a few months ago for the first day of her Bais Yaakov English teachers course, she did not expect to know anyone. Everyone in the room was a Bais Yaakov seminary graduate, and Noa had recently left the IDF as an officer.

But one face in the room looked familiar. Finally, Noa realized that she was a member of a family she had spent Shabbos with while in mechina, before her army service. Suddenly, a welter of memories from that Shabbos and the discussion with the father, an avreich, about computer use, came rushing back. Before entering the IDF, Noa was already lighting Shabbos candles, and once in the army she asked to be given a skirt. After completing her service, Noa now attends Neve Yerushalayim for baalos teshuvah while pursuing the Bais Yaakov English teachers course.

Rabbi Kook always emphasizes to the volunteers with whom he works that a ready smile and genuine interest in their chavrusah are their greatest assets. Last year, one of the volunteers approached him after two meetings and said that he was unsuited for the task: He came from a very circumscribed background and felt ill-equipped to respond to the questions his chavrusah asked. Rabbi Kook assured him that his evident satisfaction with his life as an avreich was more important. Before the end of the year, that avreich’s chavrusah left his mechina to go to a suitable yeshiva before commencing his IDF service. And he primarily attributed his decision to his discussions with his chavrusah and the Shabbaton spent in his home.

The depth of the relationships formed between chavrusos is truly remarkable. Gilad Olshtein, the founder of the three Nachshon mechinot, has accompanied Mrs. Schneider on several fundraising trips. And he always tells the story of the mechina graduate who told her commanding officer on entering an officers’ training course that her chavrusah would be making a chasunah and that she had to attend. As the day of the chasunah approached, she was denied leave. She told her commanding officer very simply: “I’m going to the chasunah, even if it means dropping the officers’ course.” For Olshtein, that story captures the success of the program in breaking down stereotypes and previous negative associations on both sides to create real friendships.

During the 2014 fighting in Gaza, a mechina graduate stationed on the Gaza border was granted a brief leave. He contacted his family, who rushed to visit him. And he tried to contact his Kesher Yehudi chavrusah so that they could learn during his leave. The latter was in kollel, so the soldier contacted Kesher Yehudi, which promptly got in touch with the avreich’s rosh kollel, who sent him by cab from Rechasim in the North to the Gaza border. The soldier meanwhile kissed his parents and siblings and spoke to them briefly. But as soon as his chavrusah arrived, he explained that the most important thing he could do with the remainder of his leave was to learn Torah.

At the beginning of every year, Rabbi Kook tells all his volunteers (of whom my son is one) that they are planting seeds, but only with time will they know whether they bear fruit. But the more effort they put into the relationship – calling on Erev Shabbos, maintaining contact during their chavrusah’s three years of IDF service – the greater the likelihood of something developing.

After the recent Shabbaton in Ramat Beit Shemesh, one of the members of the Beit Guvrin mechina, Aviv Laufman, told his chavrusah that he wanted a set of Shas. The husband of a Kesher Yehudi staffer heard about the request and decided that he was not getting much use out of his large wedding Shas, so he would give it to Aviv. At the next meeting with the Beit Guvrin mechina, there was electricity in the air, as Rabbi Kook unloaded the donated Shas. Aviv took a volume in hand, and as he did so, each of the other chanichim took out a volume. That evening, the prepared material was put aside and each avreich learned with his chavrusah directly out of the Shas, each pair learning a different masechta. Aviv was so excited with his new Shas that he started to speak about going to learn in yeshiva after the army.

KESHER YEHUDI is not just an organization to bring Jews together through their shared heritage of Torah or to increase Jewish identity. It also aims to create a movement in the chareidi world of taking responsibility for the spiritual state of our fellow Jews. And to date, it has demonstrated that the desire is there in the chareidi world.

Mrs. Schneider is confident that no matter how many mechinot seek to join the program, the chareidi volunteers will be there. And so far she has been right. The number of those seeking to volunteer in almost every neighborhood exceeds the number of chanichim in the nearby mechina. The volunteers have discovered the joy of connecting to Jews they would not otherwise have met. And they have seen how potent just keeping in touch or remembering a birthday can be. (At the end of the year, the volunteers from Ramat Beit Shemesh and their chanichim exchange small siddurim, in which they have written their contact information and birthdays to encourage that ongoing contact.)

As great as last week’s tragedy was, the fact that those swept away never had the opportunity to meet their chareidi chavrusos who were so looking forward to getting to know them makes it even greater.