Spearheading Change in Israeli Haredi Education

An alum of the Federation’s Gvanim program leads the uphill battle

Protesters on December 4 outside the home of Rabbi Menachem Bombach, head of the Boys Hassidic Midrasha, which teaches both secular and religious subjects (Courtesy: Menachem Bombach)
Protesters on December 4 outside the home of Rabbi Menachem Bombach (Courtesy: Menachem Bombach)

Early this month, protesters gathered at the home of Gvanim alumnus, Rabbi Menachem Bombach, opposing the yeshiva he founded this August – a new center of Haredi learning that combines Torah with secular studies of math, English, and physical education.

Rabbi Bombach was a participant in the Federation's Gvanim program last year, one of the few leaders in the Haredi community who makes it his business to vocalize modern thinking about education within his community, and follows it up with decisive action. (Read more about Rabbi Bombach and his Gvanim experience.)

In a society that believes in exclusive religious study, where non-religious topics are routinely shunned and usually banned, Bombach’s mixed curriculum is nothing short of radical.

So when he awoke last week in his hometown of Beitar Illit, an Israeli settlement city that is entirely Haredi, to streets plastered with political posters called pashkvil, naming him a heretic and enemy to the Haredi community, Bombach was not surprised.

“They are scared of changing the classic education model of teaching only the sacred, and of the notion that secular studies can be taught in the yeshiva without compromising Torah studies,” Bombach explained.

He anticipated that his introduction of secular studies in the Beitar yeshiva, The Hasidic Seminary for Youth, would elicit such reaction, as did a similar yeshiva program started in Jerusalem this summer. Bombach believes that exclusive Torah studies should not be the sole choice of education for Haredi boys today, especially for those students who would likely excel in schools that allowed for a mixed curriculum.

“I have a vision of raising a new generation of Haredi children who are committed to the Torah and are also people of action, less isolated and more connected to Israeli society at-large,” said Bombach.

He believes this can happen by infusing a new spirit of education into the current Haredi educational system, one that is more structured yet more diverse, and sees students as individuals who have a wide-range of potential.

The Federation, together with Israel Venture Network, is proud to be supporting efforts to include secular studies of science, math, history, geography and English in the Haredi community through our support of the Rakee’a Institute. This effort hopes to revolutionize academic studies for young Haredi students by weaving Torah studies into math and science textbooks in order to improve graduates' capacity to eventually attain full employment.

With 17 ninth grade boys currently enrolled in his yeshiva, Bombach is hopeful that registration will rise next year, despite the current protest.

“My intuition, together with the support of all the satisfied parents of boys now in the program, and a subtle but increasing demand for this kind of mixed curriculum, tell me that we can expect the program to grow next year," Bombach noted.

As a father of six, his eldest already 18 years old, he admits that these are difficult times for him and his family. There are people who are shunning and avoiding them, and fearful to associate with his family. But Bombach isn’t without support. The teachers in his seminary, along with others, understand that his way of thinking isn’t a threat, but rather an enrichment that will serve to better his community.

“We’ve succeeded in creating dialogue about this issue in every household in Beitar,” added Bombach. “That’s the necessary first step to advancing these new ideas.”

“I can say that Gvanim has had a direct impact on my actions. I’m certain that we are headed in the right direction, and my Gvanim experience has made me even more determined to try and improve the chances for creating a more pluralistic Israeli society...I’ve learned that there is only one truth, but many different paths lead up to it.”

This event brings to light just how significant and relevant the Federation’s efforts are in Israel today. The path is paved with obstacles, but we are leading the way to a more inclusive society in Israel.

To learn more about Gvanim and the Federation's other work in Israel, contact Siggy Rubinson.

Categories: Israel, Overseas, Grantees


December 16, 2014