Rabbi Menachem Bombach has been bucking tradition for several years by teaching secular subjects along with religious ones in his junior yeshiva in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, for which he has been both praised and vilified by his co-religionists.
He has also taken a far more dramatic step — at least when seen through the prism of his community’s norms — by teaching his students about Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s memorial day for its fallen IDF soldiers.
The ultra-Orthodox almost totally ignore this day, and have provoked ire for carelessly and publicly violating the extremely somber mood that prevails among the rest of the country’s Jewish residents, many of whom are personally grieving the loss of close relatives and friends.
They also, nearly to a man, refrain from performing mandatory military service.
A video showing Bombach, who holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, guiding his high school-age students toward gratitude for those who serve in the defense of their land and empathy for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, has garnered over a hundred thousand views.
“You’re part of this story,” Bombach tells his students. “You don’t have to be Zionists to cry with the house of Israel.”
“You can’t not educate the next generation to be respectful,” Bombach told the Times of Israel. “It’s the most Jewish you can be, to respect others, especially those who protected our country. It’s very important to me.”
Bombach was raised in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim in a Satmar Hasidic household and spoke no Hebrew — only Yiddish — until he turned 20.
He studied at the Vizhnitz Yeshiva and then at the prestigious Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) Mir Yeshiva. When he married at the age of 20 and looked for a job, he moved north to become a counselor at a boys yeshiva, and realized he knew very little.
He went on to study secular subjects, first earning a bachelor’s degree and then participating in the Mandel Institute’s program for leadership development in the ultra-Orthodox community. He later completed his master’s degree at Hebrew University, and then decided to open his unique boys’ yeshiva.
The pupils at Hamidrasha Hahasadit — a name that identifies it as an academy rather than a yeshiva — study Torah, Bible, Jewish law and Hasidic thought, as well as English, math, literature, Hebrew, computer science and history. They’re preparing to take the matriculation exams required for Israeli universities, studies that will eventually prepare them for professions and jobs.
“Most people in our community live on the poverty line,” said Bombach. “I want these boys to grow up and work and make a living. And study Torah.”
Despite the criticism his academy faces, he insists his community has room for improvement.
“Do we love who we are?” he asked. “Are we complete with where we are?”
In the past Haredim could protect their values with a physical wall, Bombach noted, but that’s more difficult now thanks to technology that allows one to know what is happening everywhere.
“It’s a Catch-22,” he said. “You want to be a Haredi without influence from the Western world and therefore you don’t want technology, but you can’t stop technology. And then you can’t live in this world without technology because the damage to you and your future is too great.”
It’s a challenge for the ultra-Orthodox to protect their way of life while still contributing to society from their vast knowledge of Jewish law and life, said Bombach. What he wants is for Haredim to avoid being judgmental and to respect others.
The Yom Hazikaron ceremony at his school is part of that process, he added.
Someone recently told Bombach about an Israeli Holocaust survivor who didn’t want any connection with her ultra-Orthodox grandchildren, until she saw the video about the Yom Hazikaron class and was moved to reconcile with her family.
“She didn’t know there were normal Haredim,” said Bombach. “They reunited, and I cried when I heard that story.”
Bombach’s academy is currently one of four Israeli programs eligible to win a $70,000 campaign set up by the UJA Federation of New York campaign in honor of the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding. All four programs address issues in Israeli society, and can win based on online votes.