Did you see a viral video last month on Yom Hazikaron of a yeshiva teacher leading an inspirational discussion about modern Israel with haredi high school students? So did everyone else on Jewish Facebook.
But who is the instructor in the video? 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 haredi high school? Isn’t he bucking the trend of the community’s self-acknowledged insularity?
Meet Rabbi Menachem Bombach, 41, founder of Torah Academy-Midrasha Chasidit, a new yeshiva system in Israel focused on reducing poverty in the ultra-Orthodox 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 and sharing his story in synagogues throughout the tri-state area. On his schedules are meeting with the UJA-Federation of New York; a large public event in Woodmere; and a Shabbat in Teaneck. Future trips, based on his newfound fame, are in the works. He has also met with parents and educators in Satmar communities in Williamsburg, Monsey and Monroe, and other enclaves.
Bombach said the inspiration for his school’s network came from his own life.
“I did not speak a word of Hebrew until the age of 20,” he told JNS. A member of the Vizhnitzer haredi community, he “goes with the shtriemel.” He comes from Meah Shearim. Yiddish was his first language, and he attended “an anti-Zionist cheder,” he said.
“There is no general education in the haredi community,” he told JNS. “After the Holocaust, the haredi world was destroyed, and the Chazon Ish said that the post-Holocaust focus of everyone’s efforts should be to rebuild the Torah world.” But the kollel lifestyle, where the man studies in a beit midrash all day, does not work for everyone and places incredible financial pressure on families, he explained.
While the majority of the world knows that “not every person is designed to sit and learn,” somehow this has not sunk into the haredi community, leading to a cycle of poverty and insularity. The world is “full of new challenges,” Bombach added, 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.”
Bombach shared that he began learning 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 compelled him to pursue secular schooling — first an education degree from Moreshet Yaakov, then a master’s in public policy from Hebrew University.
In 2001, he took over a failing school and rebuilt it, opening a school for Russian immigrants where he worked for many years. He prided himself most on “hiring good people.”
Inspired by the school’s success, he turned his educational focus to his own community.
“There needs to be a haredi workforce,” he insisted. “It is the most important issue facing Israel today, more dangerous from Iranian threat. Israel knows how to defend itself, but cannot defend itself from poverty and no educated people.”
Bombach’s educational network now comprises a boys’ high school called Beitar Ilit, founded four years ago; a girls’ high school called Bnot Chayil, which opened two years ago; and a vocational school to open soon in Jerusalem. There are plans to open elementary schools. And he launched a program at Hebrew University for haredi college students. “We are also trying to find people who want to open schools like us to combine secular education with religious education,” he said.
Rabbi Meir Goldwicht, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, recently visited Beitar Ilit and gave a shiur in Hebrew. In his words, he was “wowed.” Anyone who spends even an hour with this team of educators, comes away a different person, he said.
“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 JNS. “Everyone who meets Rabbi Bombach will feel immediately what special work he does with the students and what a unique person he is.”
Bombach says he has considerable private rabbinic support, as well as others who are quietly watching and have reserved judgment. But it is the parents of students who have the most clarity on why the schools exist: “Some parents want to stop the circle of poverty, and other parents take responsibility because they know the kids are not going to sit and learn all day.”
The effect of haredim 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,” he said. “The students should be citizens and part of Israel. We are educating them to have solidarity for Israel. If they don’t, by 2028 haredim 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 is not trying to rock the boat of the haredi belief system. “But people need to finance themselves, and have respect for others and gratitude,” he said.
“If you meet a mainstream haredi now, he is confused with all the language and technology barriers he has. He has no answers to the big questions.”
Since going viral, Rabbi Bombach has had a number of moving experiences.
“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 haredim and how they are anti-Zionist. After the viral video, she called and said she saw another kind of haredim. She said, ‘I want to renew the relationship’.”