First Chareidi Hesder Yeshiva Combines Torah and Army

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chareidi-idf-soldierThe first so-called chareidi Hesder yeshiva has been opened in Yerushalayim, combining Torah study with IDF army service.

While the first chareidi mechina, or pre-army preparatory academy, began operating last August, the Hesder program includes actual military service and lasts four years, as opposed to the year or two of pre-army training and Torah study in the mechina schools.

The new Hesder track received final approval from the Defense Ministry last week, and has already started with its first batch of inductees. The 16 students will take part in a 48-month-long track of combined army service and religious studies.

Yeshiva Derech Chaim, based at the Yerushalayim College of Technology (Machon Lev) campus, will run the program. The new program for chareidi students will include 24 months of IDF service, as opposed to 17 months in other programs. Read more here.

{ Israel}


  1. An Interview with Rabbi Karmi Gross
    Home ? Israel ? An Interview with Rabbi Karmi Gross
    Elaine Berkowitz Israel March 29, 2014

    We hold Eretz Yisrael in our hearts as our own special place – our home, even when we don’t reside there. We visit, if we can, to soak up the atmosphere of kedusha (holiness), and some of us actually transfer our selves and our belongings – to live there in reality and not just in our dreams.

    One thing that everyone can agree on is that Eretz Yisrael is nothing like our sedate Baltimore. From the blazing sunlight to the passionate people, from the politics to the religion, things are more intense. Everything matters, and everyone cares. Besides being a land steeped in kedusha – perhaps because of it – Eretz Yisrael is embroiled in conflict. Ancient and modern, holy and mundane, beautiful and repulsive, great love and poisonous hatred – they all travel the same buses.

    We in faraway America have heard the issues, and we form opinions, heavily influenced by our personal philosophies of life and our cultural attitudes. It pains us to see brother aligned against brother. But bottom line: We don’t – we can’t –understand. Not really.

    What is often overlooked, however, amid the mass demonstrations and the ferment of charge and countercharge, are the lone individuals who labor in the shadows, in the crevices between cliché and certainty, trying to make some positive contribution to the country and the lives of its people.

    One such person is Rabbi Karmi Gross. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh and travels everyday to Yerushalayim, where he is the rosh yeshiva of Derech Chaim, a yeshiva he founded last September. Housed in Machon Lev, a well-established frum college of technology, it comprises 14 boys. The innovative aspect of the yeshiva is that it is a chareidi hesder yeshiva, an utterly new category in the spectrum of Israeli yeshivos. Started in coordination with the IDF (Israeli army), it allows boys to learn a full two sedarim a day and study technology at night with the aim of preparing them to serve a two-year army stint.

    In chinuch (Jewish education) for over 35 years, Rabbi Gross has, in a sense, been training for his position since childhood. His father, Rabbi Alexander S. Gross, a”h, was a consummate educator, who founded and led the first Jewish day school in the South, Miami Beach’s Hebrew Academy, now named after him.

    Rabbi Gross made aliyah over 30 years ago but eventually returned to the States, where he spent 17 years as a day school principal in Vancouver, Detroit, and Los Angeles. In addition to the usual demanding duties of a principal, Rabbi Gross acquired a specialty in curriculum development, and continues to consult in that field, at schools in North America and South Africa. Rabbi Gross and his wife have 10 children: five in the States and five living in Israel. There is a Baltimore connection, as a son of the Grosses is married to Chumie Feldman Gross.

    In this interview, Rabbi Gross discusses his yeshiva in light of the difficult issues in Eretz Yisrael.

    EB: Rabbi Gross, what does your program consist of?

    Rabbi Karmi Gross: Our chareidi hesder yeshiva, called Derech Chaim, is a four-year program completely approved by the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Education. The first two years, the boys learn a regular two sedarim in the Machon Lev beit hamidrash. The morning seder begins at 9 a.m. and goes until 1 p.m. Our iyun seder, in-depth learning, differs from the standard Yeshiva style in that we focus not only on the theoretical but also on the practical halachik outcomes of the Gemara text. From 2 to 6 p.m., the boys have a second seder, in which they will cover more than 150 blatt over the course of the year. And at 6:30 p.m., the boys start learning technology. Machon Lev sat down with the army and created these courses. We are paying Machon Lev to teach us the technology.

    So that’s the first two years. The third and fourth year of the program, the boys will actually be drafted into the army, where they will work in technology. So all the training they received – approximately 1,000 hours of classes they have taken over the first two years – will be put into practice in the army’s intelligence division. They will work 9-to-5 jobs in the army and return to yeshiva every evening for night seder. They won’t sleep on the base; they’ll work on the base and come home.

    EB: Are these married men?

    RKG: No, most of the boys are 18 to 20; perhaps there will be a few up to age 22. We understand that they will very possibly get married over the four years of the program; we’ll deal with those issues as they come up.

    EB: What is the goal of the program?

    RKG: The idea is that when they finish the four years, they will be talmidei chachamim who can learn. In addition, they will have undergone not only technology training but also two years of experience in the army. This should make their entrance into the workforce very smooth, very easy. They will be able to be mefarness mishpacha bekavod, support a family with dignity. So our goal is basically to create this chareidi yeshiva that gives the students a path to the army and work.

    EB: How did you happen to start such a novel program?

    RKG: We made aliyah four-and-a-half years ago, after having lived here in Eretz Yisrael a long time ago. Our first aliyah goes back about 30 years. At that time, I was at a school called Marava. This was the first chareidi high school, started by Rabbi Baruch Chait, and I worked with him for the first nine years of the school.

    When we came back, I didn’t have anything in particular laid out. I became a Rav in a shul in Ramat Beit Shemesh, the Biali shteibel, but I was looking for something else to do. I asked people what was Israel’s most pressing need, and many of them felt that someone had to open a chareidi post-high school institution in Israel, that is, a yeshiva that also offers secular studies. Basically, the idea was that the gap between the chareidi world and the secular Israeli world was growing, and causing tremendous tensions. For both social and economic reasons, the chareidi world needs another option – not the only option – but one option among others. There are many students who say, I want to be shomer Torah and mitzvos – as I’ve been brought up, as a chareidi – but I want to earn a living, too. I want to be part of this country, help build this country. I want to go into the army, but I want it on the terms of a chareidi. So, I talked to a lot of people about opening such a school, and no one was willing to do it.

    EB: So you started this post-high school? How did that happen? Did you approach the army?

    RKG: I had been working on the idea. Then, someone who knew me also knew a man who was working on something like this from the army’s side. He said, “Why don’t you guys get together?” We did get together a year-and-a-half ago. My shutaf’s (partner’s) name is Rami Leiber. He is a sgan aluf (lieutenant colonel) in the reserves. He was a high level officer in Israeli intelligence for many years, the head of one of the modin, intelligence, units. He had gone out on pension and was actually called back by the army to work on this program. After we met, it took another year of working with the army before we could open.

    EB: Isn’t there a hesder program in the IDF?

    RKG: There is, but our program is not a part of the dati leumi (national religious) hesder program. Our program is open only to chareidim; if you are from a national religious high school (which we call kipa srugah) you can’t come. The army won’t let you.

    The dati leumi hesder program is nothing like ours. Their boys go into the army for five years, and during those years, they’re either in the army full time or learning full time. There’s no mingling of the secular and religious, and they can’t take secular courses. The idea of combining the two – while you’re learning you’re studying technology, and while you’re in the army you’re learning – that’s new. And we did it that way, because the chareidi way of thinking demands it. Torah has to happen all the time.

    EB: Will the boys also get basic training?

    RKG: We’re not up to that yet, but, yes, they will go through a basic, basic training. I imagine it will be scaled down a bit.

    EB: So the army got the idea that chareidim would be a good population to work in army intelligence?

    RKG: Yes. A couple of things happened at the same time. First, the army realized that they kept talking about chareidim coming into the army but were not prepared for them. That came together with the fact that the army is short by about 3,000 technology workers. This happens because most Israelis go to the army and then go to the university. After they’ve done their service, the army has lost them.

    EB: Doesn’t the army have a program in which secular boys can postpone their army service and serve after university?

    RKG: Yes; it’s called atuda, but not many participate. It gives the army a couple of hundred men – nowhere near the numbers they need.

    EB: It sounds like the perfect shidduch. I’m sure the chareidi boys are trustworthy, loyal, and also smart.

    RKG: It really is the perfect shidduch. And because the boys are studying magen-cyber, that is, cyber-defense or cyber-security, it is what I would call a true win-win situation. This was the army’s interest. They knew they needed the chareidim, so they’re trying to build this model. And if the model works, it sets a paradigm that hundreds will be able to take advantage of, be’ezras Hashem. From the boys’ point of view, it will help them learn a vocation and integrate into the workforce.

    EB: Who are your students? Are most of the boys from Anglo families?

    RKG: Around half of them, at least, are from Anglo families who made aliyah, and these boys grew up here. We will probably always have that mix. Most of the boys went to a chareidi high school – not a yeshiva ketana. The difference is that in yeshiva ketana they have no secular studies. There are just three big chareidi high schools: Marava, Nahorah, and Yishuv. Their students are chareidi boys, and they do the regular yeshiva curriculum of limudei kodesh, but they also study limudei chol and are able to get a full bagrut (Regent-like tests for high school graduation).

    EB: I never heard of that. So, you are not really a part of the mainstream Israeli chareidi world.

    RKG: No. The chareidi high schools have never really been accepted into the chareidi mainstream. Among the three big ones and one smaller one, there are at least 200 to 300 boys who graduate each year. The high schools are fantastic. I had a hand in beginning one of them, so I know. The boys learn very well, b”H, and are accepted into some of the best yeshivas.

    EB: So they’re not starting from scratch. They know math and other subjects.

    RKG: They have math. They have science. Most of them, the ones from Anglo backgrounds, also have English.

    EB: Would you accept someone if he didn’t have a math background?

    RKG: Yes. We have, in fact. And those students need serious, very significant tutorials to bring them up to some level of math and science literacy. This is in addition to the regular program. All the boys work very, very hard. They daven at 7:30 and finish their day at 11:30 p.m. They also have homework. So, our program is meant for a very serious, motivated student.

    EB: So, they’re not dropouts or kids off the derech.

    RKG: No. There are a number of programs for those youth, like the Nachal Chareidi. But we are a program for students who just want something different, who don’t see being an avrech (yeshiva student) as their future.

    EB: How do the boys find out about you?

    RKG: Word of mouth. None of the chareidi high schools would let us in to recruit students. They all want their students to continue in yeshiva gedola. So, you might say, why teach them secular subjects? The answer given is that they should have it in their “back pocket.”

    EB: Do all the boys in your Derech Chaim program study computers? What about those who are not interested in that field?

    RKG: This is one of our challenges. Thank G-d, the majority of the boys – we started with eight boys and are now up to 14 – do see their future in cyber-defense; they enjoy it. Of those who don’t, one group has decided to opt out of the cyber-defense program and study other subjects via the Open University. This is an online university that awards a highly valued degree. How this will work with the army, we have yet to see; we’re still working on that. The other group says, even if I don’t ultimately go into cyber-defense, it is always good to know technology. Three quarters of the things they’ll be learning will help them in their lives, because technology pervades all fields. These boys say, I want to learn technology and I want to serve in the army, and if this will help me in my army service, what do I have to lose?

    EB: Will they really get jobs after the army? Is there is discrimination in the workplace? Or maybe chareidim don’t fit into the Israeli work culture?

    RKG: There are a lot of reasons why someone might not get hired. It’s a known fact that if you have army behind you, your chance of getting a good job doubles. So if you are coming from the chareidi world and haven’t done army service – or, actually, anyone who hasn’t done army service – your chances of getting the job just went down by 50 percent. Part of it may be some sort of prejudice, but another part – perhaps a larger part – is that when you’re in the army, you make a lot of connections, and those connections are very, very powerful. You create bonds. And later, when it comes to getting a job, they know you and you know them. It makes a big difference.

    Probably the main reason, though, is that chareidim who come into the workforce have often taken a number of shortcuts. They don’t go through the full academic milieu. Let’s say you want to hire someone: One candidate is a chiloni (secular) who did army, went through regular courses in the university, and has experience. Then you have a chareidi with no secular studies in high school. He had to stuff it all into a one-year catch-up course – and most of them don’t even pass that one year – and then he comes into the workforce and thinks he’s going to be equal. He’s not equal, not close to being equal. Why would someone hire him? You can call it haflaya (racism), but it’s not.

    Our students are also taking a shortcut. Two years in night school is not going to get you an academic degree. We hope that some students will continue on after the army and get their degree, but I think most of them won’t. They’ll want to go straight into the workforce. We’ve worked it out, however, so that they will be in the most prestigious army units – and we happened to have chosen a field which is in high demand and where a degree is perhaps less important.

    EB: What happens to chareidim who try to go into technical programs after yeshiva gedola?

    RKG: The failure rate is almost 50 percent. I’ll give you an example: Many chareidim who apply to the regular Machon Lev technical degree programs take an average of a year-and-a-half of preparatory classes before they can start, and even so, half of them don’t make it. The chareidi world tells the boys, “Sit and learn here in high school and don’t worry about limudei chol, because you can always do it later.” And they’ll add, “I know a guy who….” Yes, I also know a guy who had no background and managed to do it all on his own, but I know 900 who didn’t.

    Another point is, if you got your education through a shortcut, what kind of a job are you going to get? You’ll have lousy pay and lousy hours, so all the things you want to do as a chareidi – you want to spend time with your family, you want to be kovea itim laTorah – you’re precluding all those possibilities.

    EB: Is it hard to go against the mainstream chareidi world?

    RKG: What we found to be true of Marava is also true of Derech Chaim. To this day, there is no gadol out there who will approve of Marava. But we know for a fact that when people go and speak to the gedolim one on one, they tell them, “For you, it’s fine.” When the gedolim speak, there is one message for the masses, but individuals hear a different message. A gadol will offer advice that is best for that person.

    And you do what you have to do. You do what’s needed in the country. I don’t think anything I am doing is against the gedolim, even though they would not publicly approve of what I’m doing. I’m working with students who do not see their place in a bait midrash, for whom forcing them into the bait hamidrash would lead to negative results. To the student who wants to be in the bait hamidrash, I say, stay in the bait hamidrash. But we are talking about students who do not see their future in those terms.

    EB: This is a very American chareidi viewpoint.

    RKG: Coming from America, our view of everything is different. Most important is that we believe that even if you offer open prospects to a student, a ben Torah would still rather stay in yeshiva. Most guys in Lakewood can leave any time they want, yet most want to stay. If they have to leave, they do it kicking and screaming.

    The Israeli take on things is that if we let anyone work, everyone will want to work. You hear that all the time. It’s a surprising – I would say shocking – lack of confidence in the product they are offering. They don’t believe in the power of Torah, the allure of learning that is so beautiful to us that, when we have to leave the bait midrash, we don’t want to.

    EB: Is the government fully behind your program?

    RKG: The government is not doing nearly enough to encourage programs like ours. I think this is a big fault of the government. They should be throwing money at us! Why should I have to go out fundraising? Why isn’t the government saying, “You are the future we want to see. You are the ones who are bridging the gap, the ones who are trying to repair this tear in the society. How can we help you?”

    Because we are the future. The government really doesn’t get it. They don’t know what to do. They want the chareidim to integrate into the army, into the world of work, but they are not setting up the infrastructure for it to happen. They think that they can force people to do these things by law or by mandate. But the chareidim look around and say, they’re not really serious. There are a few Knesset members who actively back all we are doing, and we can only hope that their voices carry the day.

    So that’s a big problem, and we’re trying to fix it. We’re trying to get the government to realize that the chareidi world is not going to come into the army unless it’s set up so that it’s okay for them, so it’s comfortable for them. If I can’t eat there, why should I go? And it’s not just the food; it’s the whole environment.

    EB: Do you see your experiences as a principal in America as a precursor to your present position?

    RKG: I was a principal in elementary schools, so it is not the same. Being a rosh yeshiva was not what I wanted in my life; I call myself the “reluctant rosh yeshiva.” My real interest is in curriculum development for day schools. I work with schools in Toronto and in South Africa. I fly there all the time. You can go on my website,, where I explain my theory of education. I would say that almost every Jewish school has serious issues with its curriculum. I called my article, which was published in Jewish Action, “Why Do our Children Learn so Much and Know so Little.” Children learn and learn for over 12 years and don’t know enough when they come out. I know how to fix that problem. I walk into the school, and we overturn the school. We change the way we teach, we change what we teach. It is research-based teaching, standard-based learning. It’s quite incredible what we can do in the schools.

    But I have to do this. I have no choice.

    EB: Because you see the need?

    RKG: Yes, the need is massive and is growing by the day. What’s going on in the country – I don’t even know what word to use – it’s just hysteria. I can’t sit idly by. So no matter what the price – I spent a tremendous amount of my own money to get this started and, b”H, we have backers who are helping us – I have to do it. I never saw this as my future, but no one else is doing it.

    EB: With all the problems, why do you want to live here in Eretz Yisrael?

    RKG: Because it’s our home. It’s that simple. It’s just our home. We were 17 years in the States, and every year, every chag, I would cry during Kiddush, because we were not in Eretz Yisrael. It’s crazy, but every day I walk outside and I thank G-d that I’m home and that I’ve had the opportunity to make a real difference.

    EB: Thank you for a very interesting conversation.

  2. Re #1: speak to the gedolim personally and you’ll see that they advocate chanoch l’naar al pi darko. This is a viable option for those for whom it’s needed.


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