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Monday, June 18, 2018

Rabbi Menachem Bombach will be speaking in Teaneck this Shabbat.

Did you see this viral video last month, on Yom Hazikaron, of a yeshiva teacher leading an inspirational discussion about modern Israel with charedi (ultra-Orthodox) high school students? So did everyone else in the Jewish Facebook world.

But who is the instructor in the video, you might have asked? How does he know so much about secular Israeli culture and why is he teaching about military service and the sacrifice of Israeli military families at a charedi high school? Isn’t what he is doing bucking the trend of the charedi community’s self-acknowledged insularity?

Meet Rabbi Menachem Bombach, 41, founder of Torah Academy-Midrasha Chasidit (also known as Midrasha Chasidit L’Tzeirim or MCL), a new yeshiva system in Israel focused on reducing poverty in the charedi community through education, preparing them to attend college and enter the workforce.

Bombach is in the United States for the next week, meeting with Jewish organizations, professionals and sharing his story in synagogues throughout the tri-state area. He will be speaking this Shabbat in Teaneck at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun at approximately 11:15 (after the 9 a.m. minyan) and at Keter Torah at 5:55 p.m. before Mincha and during seudah shlishit. Also on his schedule are meetings with the UJA-Federation of New York, a visit to SAR High School; he is also headlining a large public event in Woodmere on Sunday.

Rabbi Zev Reichman, director of Yeshiva University's mechina program and rabbi of Englewood’s East Hill Synagogue, met with Rabbi Bombach extensively. “I am inspired by Rabbi Bombach and his school. This school is a wonderful initiative. It is dedicated to causing different types of Jews to love each other and respect the contributions other Jews make,” he said.

Bombach also did significant outreach to the charedi and chassidic communities; meeting in Williamsburg with Satmar parents and in a number of other settings. “We visited Imrei Shufer elementary school, a chasidic boys school in Monsey, we had an event in Monroe with 30 chasidic educators, we visited Yeshivas Kochvei Or, led by singer Berri Weber, and also planned an evening cruise with the students of Yeshiva TIDE (Torah Im Derech Eretz),” said Moshe Klein, Midreshet Chasidit’s US director.

On his own background: “I did not speak a word of Hebrew until the age of 20.”

Bochbach said the inspiration to create his school’s network came from his own life experience. “I did not speak a word of Hebrew until the age of 20,” said Rabbi Bombach in an interview. Bombach noted that as a member of the Vizhnitzer charedi community he “goes with the shtreimel,” in his words. He comes from a home in the Meah Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem where Yiddish was his first language. “I went to an anti-Zionist cheder,” he said.

“There is no general education in the charedi community. After the Holocaust, the world of the charedim was destroyed, and the Chazon Ish [Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, z"tl, a founding leader of the charedi community in Israel who died in 1953] said that the post-Holocaust focus of everyone’s efforts should be to rebuild the Torah world.” The kollel lifestyle, where the man’s job is to study in a beit midrash all day, however, does not work for everyone and places incredible financial pressure on families because the primary breadwinner is usually not part of the workforce, he said.

While the majority of the world knows that “not every person is designed to sit and learn,” Bombach repeated, somehow this knowledge has not sunk in to the charedi community and it has led to a cycle of poverty and insularity, where they are taught to fear or not show proper respect for all that is “other.” The world is also “full of new challenges,” and “if we don’t give students the tools to understand it, then when they are exposed to the world outside they will drop out,” he said.  

Bombach shared that he began learning both Hebrew and English after he got married and started working as a counselor for Russian immigrants in 1997. His realization that he lacked sufficient knowledge to help his students effectively compelled him to pursue secular schooling, first with an education degree from Moreshet Yaakov, and then with a master’s in public policy from Hebrew University. In 2001 he took over a school that was in very bad shape and rebuilt it anew, opening a school for Russian immigrants where he worked for many years. He prided himself most on “hiring good people” and was inspired by the school’s success to turn his educational focus to his own community where he grew up.   

“There needs to be a charedi workforce. It is the most important issue facing Israel today, more dangerous than the Iranian threat. Israel knows how to defend itself but cannot defend itself from poverty and no educated people,” Bombach said.

Bombach’s educational network now comprises a boys high school in Beitar Illit, which was founded four years ago, a girls high school called Bnot Chayil, which opened two years ago, and a vocational school that is shortly to open in Jerusalem. Plans to open a cheder (elementary school) are also in the works. He also launched a program at Hebrew University for charedi college students. “We are also trying to find people who want to open schools like us to combine secular education with religious education,” he added.

Rabbi Meir Goldwicht, a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, recently visited Rabbi Bombach’s Beitar Ilit yeshiva; and gave a shiur in Hebrew to its students. In his words, he was “wowed” by the experience, noting that anyone who spends even an hour in the presence of these students and instructors “comes away a different person,” noting that Rabbi Bombach and his team of unique educators are so  committed to their mission, that they don’t feel they have come to work at the yeshiva; rather, they come with a deep passion to serve their students. “They give the students the bigger picture about life; how to go in Torah and yirat shamayim and how to integrate this later, everyone in his field, whatever he will pick,” Goldwicht told The Jewish Link. 

“Everyone who meets Rabbi Bombach will feel immediately what special work he does with the students and what a unique person he is,” added Goldwicht.

Bombach, who said he has had considerable private rabbinic support and others who are quietly watching his work and have reserved judgment on his methods, said the parents of students have the most clarity on why the schools should exist, and there are two types of such parents. “Some parents want to stop the cycle of property, and other parents take responsibility because they know the kids are not going to sit and learn all day,” he explained.

The effect of charedim joining the workforce will not only allow them to support themselves financially, but will also ensure the health of the Israeli economy. “The schools are not just about matriculation. The students should be citizens and part of Israel. We are educating them to have solidarity for Israel. If they don’t, by 2028 charedim will comprise 40 percent of first graders, and those students, if they grow up with no secular knowledge, will bring down all of Israel by the time they are adults. There will be no one to work.”

Bombach noted that he is not trying to “change the charedi” or rock the boat in terms of belief systems. “But people need to finance themselves and have respect for others and gratitude. If you meet a mainstream charedi now he is confused with all the language and technology barriers he has. He has no answers to the big questions.”

Bombach noted that he has been catapulted to fame since his video went viral, and a number of moving experiences have resulted from it. One example: “A guy came to me from the Chabad community. He said, ‘My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor who lives on a kibbutz; she doesn’t want anything to do with us because she hates the charedim and how they are anti-Zionist. After the viral video she called and said she saw another kind of charedim. She said, “I want to renew the relationship.”’”

Rabbi Klein, the US-based MCL director who organized the events in the chasidic community, is a teacher at Krasna Elementary School of Boro Park. He noted he is passionate about education and is working to bring Rabbi Bombach’s model to ultra-orthodox schools in the US. “If anyone is interested to learn more about our work in Israel or in the US they can contact me at [email protected],” he told The Jewish Link.