Krav Maga and Torah: Yeshiva in Israel builds bridge between ultra-orthodox and IDF

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Krav Maga and Torah: Yeshiva in Israel builds bridge between ultra-orthodox and IDF

Jewish News visited Yeshiva Chedvata in Gan Yavneh, which offers ultra-orthodox and religious boys BA degrees before they enlist in the IDF.

Rabbi Yonathan Reiss. Credit: Jotam Confino/Jewish News.
Rabbi Yonathan Reiss. Credit: Jotam Confino/Jewish News.

“We are building a bridge between the ultra-orthodox community in Israel and the secular world,” Rabbi Yonathan Reiss says as he proudly surveys Yeshiva Chedvata. 

Reiss, who grew up in the ultra-orthodox Beltz sect in Jerusalem, founded Chedvata 10 years ago in an attempt to solve one of the most contentious issues in Israel; the growing rift between the ultra-orthodox and secular communities over enlistment in the IDF.

The “status-quo” agreement in Israel has exempted ultra-orthodox boys and girls from the army for decades, whereas secular and less religious Israeli Jewish girls and boys have to serve roughly two and three years in the IDF respectively.

Rabbi Reiss is among the few ultra-orthodox who was drafted to the army after having left the country at the age of 18, and therefore didn’t study at a Yeshiva, which is required in order to avoid being drafted.

He was arrested at the age of 26 when he returned to Israel and forced to join the army. It was there he realised his calling; to build a bridge between the IDF and the ultra-orthodox.

Students at the Chedvata Yeshiva in Gan Yavne. Credit: Jotam Confino/Jewish News.

“For many ultra-orthodox, the IDF is a secular institution where everyone is together (both men and women), which is the exact opposite of where they come from. The army really wants to integrate the ultra-orthodox, so they promise them their religious life can continue. But for many years it wasn’t properly geared for it. And I saw an opportunity to change that,” Rabbi Reiss told Jewish News.

In 2013, Rabbi Reiss decided to launch his own Yeshiva based on the philosophy that it’s possible to combine Torah studies with work and army.

Chedvata, located in the central Israeli city of Gan Yavneh, is offering a variety of BA degrees, such as computer science and software engineering, which prepares them for specific units in the IDF.

There are two groups of young boys at the Yeshiva; Those who were brought up strictly orthodox, only studying Torah their whole lives and know nothing else. They aren’t taught core curriculum, such as math, English, like the rest of Israeli students.

“This group is being taught basic studies the first year to prepare them for the bachelor’s degree. Many of them don’t even know the (latin) alphabet,” Rabbi Reiss said.

The second group is made of of less religious boys, who studied core curriculum alongside Torah. “This group can straight to the degree,” Rabbi Reiss said.

For 18-year-old Akiva Beninson, Chedvata is the perfect solution for the way he wants to live his life.

“Sadly, I think it’s a waste of time to go straight to the army. My brothers did that and they are now on a different salary than when I finish my degree and army. I could get into 8200 (elite cyber unit), but I will probably end up in the airforce,” he told Jewish News.

Rabbi Yonathan Reiss. Credit: Natan Moyal.

Krav Maga and Torah

The group of students enjoying their break in the Yeshiva courtyard come from all corners of the country. 85% of the students are enrolled in a computer science BA degree, which means that many of them will go straight into cyber units in the IDF.

But others, like 18-year-old Eliyakum Neves from Jerusalem, is in a programme specifically meant to prepare the young boys for combat service.

“We get up at 6:00 in the morning and start our day with running and work out all day. We are with the Yeshiva in the morning hours where we study Torah but from 1:00 PM we separate. Then we study Arabic, Krav Maga,” Neves said.

18-year-old Eliyakum Neves from Jerusalem. Credit: Jotam Confino/Jewish News.

Like many other religious boys, Neves has met resistance from the ultra-orthodox community over his decision to join a Yeshiva that specifically prepares for army service.

“People around me weren’t too happy about it, but it’s my choice. I used to be ‘black and white’ a few years ago, and when I stopped being that they were okay with it. But when it comes to the army they are like ‘hey, stop here’,” Neves said.

Rabbi Ari Netanel Maor, who teaches Torah and Halacha (Talmud), weighs in on the sensitive issue in the community: “The combination of studying the Torah and secular studies is something that was always frowned upon. When it all started, it was unheard of. We had to keep everything under the radar because a lot of people were against it. So it’s a very new concept and a real change in the ultra-orthodox community. Today it’s more acceptable but not as much as it should be.”

“We try to prepare our students for life. All the tools they need to become an observant Jew, how to be a giving person, a husband and the relationship in a workplace. So it’s all encompassing,” Rabbi Maor added.

When asked about the contentious debate in Israel over the ultra-orthodox parties in the coalition seeking to pass a law that will exempt religious youth from army service, the students and teachers have different opinions.

Rabbi Maor, who also comes from Jerusalem, said there will always be an elite group, which can be tens of thousands, that learn Torah a full day: “That will always exist.”

Rabbi Ari Netanel Maor teaching students at Yeshiva Chedvata. Credit: Jotam Confino/Jewish News.

“It’s a very emotional issue. People have to realise that the army has to be professional. The more professional it is the better it will be. Drafting everybody is not good for anybody. Once we come to that realisation I’m sure a lot of people in the orthodox community would like to become professional soldiers,” Rabbi Maor said.

Akiva Beninson, who grew up in the city of Beit Shemesh with American and Scottish parents, said he thinks everyone, including the ultra-orthodox, should either be drafted to the army or do community service.

“You don’t want to get stuck studying Torah all day, not everyone wants to do that today. Some do, and they should have the right to do it. But the amount of people that want to do that is not as high as you might think,” he said.

17-year-old Nati Mozkowits from Beit Shemesh, who is studying a BA in computer science, agrees with Beninson.

Rabbi Ari Netanel Maor with his students at Yeshiva Chedvata. Credit: Jotam Confino/Jewish News.

“I don’t think they should pass that law. I think that every person who lives in Israel has to give their part (to society). I get if you want to study Torah but it shouldn’t exempt you from army service.

The unique concept at the Yeshiva Chedvata has become very popular over the years, enrolling more than 300 students in three different Yeshivas across the country; Gan Yavneh, Jerusalem and Haifa. The fourth of its kind is set to open in Haifa later this year.

And it’s not just the students who have found Rabbi Ress’ initiative interesting.

Former Defence Minister and leader of the National Unity Party, Benny Gantz, has allied with Reiss, making him a sort of unofficial liaison to the ultra-orthodox community and using his knowledge to draft the “Gantz Plan.”

According to the plan, both ultra-orthodox and Arab Israelis will have to choose doing either army or civil service in the future.

“This way, for example, the ultra-Orthodox could join charity organisations – a highly respected cause among their communities – and also learn a profession in the emergency, health and welfare organisations. Arab citizens could give back to the community, develop education organisations within it and help combat crime,” Gantz said in 2021 when he presented the plan.

“I wrote Gantz’s plan. And I think in the end, the ultra-orthodox will chose this path. There is no other choice,” Reiss said.

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