Participants of the Flying the Flag project for yeshivot and seminaries
BY RABBI REUVEN TARAGIN
A uniquely Greek threat
Through the centuries, many enemies have persecuted the Jews. Some threatened us physically, as we recall on Pesach and Purim, when Hashem saved us from slavery and annihilation. Later we faced threats of forced conversion; religions like Christianity and Islam tried to force us to accept their faith, while ideologies like socialism and communism pressed us to adopt their secular creed.
Yet the challenge posed by the Greeks and their Hellenist sympathizers, which we remember each year on Chanukah, presented a threat that in some ways surpassed all the others.
The Greeks demanded that we subvert Judaism by aligning it with their own culture. They pressured our people to deny our unique relationship with Hashem and treat Torah and mitzvot as merely human customs, to be abandoned in the face of other customs – such as their own – that they deemed superior.
This Greek initiative was insidious: Jews would not have to convert, but they would have to integrate into the larger society on society’s terms.
The Chashmona’im appreciated the gravity of this threat. They fought the Greeks and Hellenists to protect the purity of our Jewish religion and identity.
With Hashem’s help, their efforts ensured that we Jews would remain committed to the true understanding of our unique faith and relationship with Hashem.
Chanukah’s modern message
For 2,000 years, Chanukah has reminded Jews that we must be ever vigilant in protecting our unique identity. The need for this protection has grown as Jews have become increasingly integrated into modern society, leading to assimilation, dilution of Jewish identity, and radical reformulations of Judaism that try to align it with secular notions and alien religious ideas and practices. Such trends have affected not only non-Orthodox Jews but the Modern Orthodox community as well. Efforts to engage with and even benefit from the larger society can bring exposure to problematic ideas and cultural influences.
Orthodox youth often enter adulthood living in tension between Jewish and secular worldviews. Although these young men and women study Torah texts, gain Jewish perspective, and commit to a halachic life, they also devote themselves to secular studies in order to succeed in college, and sustain connections with pop and sports culture and the world of social media.
The importance of a year in Israel
These considerations help explain why the post-high school gap year in Israel has become so important to the Modern Orthodox community. This experience exposes and connects our young adults to life in Eretz Yisrael, strengthens their Torah knowledge and observance, and, perhaps most importantly, allows them to reflect on the place of Torah and Jewish values within their own identity and lifestyle.
This ‘lech lecha’ experience – leaving their cultural milieu for a year of immersion in Israeli yeshivot and seminaries – has powerfully impacted thousands of Orthodox teenagers. Whether immediately or after a few years, many move to Israel. Others go back home and make dramatic impacts on the religious life of Modern Orthodox communities around the world, growing membership and intensifying commitment.
Mizrachi and the year in Israel
As an organization focused on connecting Jews to Israel, Mizrachi has always been at the forefront of encouraging and facilitating the gap year in Israel.
Most recently, Mizrachi played a critical role in helping yeshivot and seminaries cope with new challenges. When Masa announced funding cuts for yeshivot and seminaries, Mizrachi lobbied to restore funding and organized campaigns that raised over $10 million to support yeshivot and seminaries. When Covid regulations barred entry into Israel, Mizrachi worked with government officials to ensure that yeshiva and seminary students could enter the country, and has continued working to help maintain all aspects of the gap year experience.
Baruch Hashem, Mizrachi’s success in the recent World Zionist Organization elections will enable us to assist gap year yeshiva and seminary programs in new ways. Inspired by the goals and victory of the Chashmona’im, we at Mizrachi are committed to strengthening our young people’s connection to Torah, Israel, and the Jewish people.
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and Dean of the Yeshivat Hakotel Overseas Program.