(Photo: Yeshiva University)
One on One with Rabbi Hershel Schachter
Last month, Avi Borgen asked Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), to reflect on his connection to Eretz Yisrael and the State of Israel.
You have a very deep and emotional connection with Eretz Yisrael. How did you create that connection while living in the Diaspora?
Over the years, we spent many summers in Eretz Yisrael. When I joined NCSY Kollel for a few summers, I saw how the boys just fell in love with the Land.
35 years ago, I spent three summers in the Nir Yeshiva, a hesder yeshivah in Kiryat Arba. At that time, everything was peaceful; we would go to Chevron, the Me’arat Hamachpela, and there was no trouble at all. It was only a few years after the Six Day War, and the Arabs were still too frightened to cause any trouble. My children would travel freely on their own on buses up and down the country, from north to south. These summers were transformative for my family. Today, my three older daughters all live in Eretz Yisrael.
Is there a place in Israel that you connect with in particular?
I love the whole country, and especially Chevron. There is a fellow there, Rabbi Yitzchak Rodrig, who runs a machon for rabbanim called the Chevron Rabbinical Research Institute. He has an office building with offices for rabbanim, and each rabbi has his own office with his own Shas, Rambam and Rishonim, and he encourages the rabbanim to sit there and write sefarim.
Whenever he bumps into me he says he wants me to come to Chevron, to live there permanently! I feel very connected there, and with many other places.
Last month I gave a shiur in Rav Druckman’s yeshivah, and when they introduced me they said: “The last time he spoke here was 31 years ago; we hope we won’t have to wait so long for the next time!” I gave shiurim in Sderot, in Merkaz HaRav, in Mitzpe Yericho. I feel connected to these places; I have grandchildren living there.
How has the State of Israel impacted the Modern Orthodox community in America?
I remember a Shemitta year, 14 years ago, when I was in Israel with NCSY Kollel. A group of Young Israel rabbis had plans to visit farmers who had decided, for the first time, not to rely on the heter mechirah and I joined them for the trip.
We visited three different farmers, and then went to Moshav Komemiyut. Many years ago, the rabbi of Komemiyut was Rabbi Binyamin Mendelson, who worked with the Chazon Ish to convince farmers not to rely on the heter mechirah. His son is now the rabbi of the moshav, and he spoke with us. When he realized that I was from Yeshiva University, he said he was recently in Washington Heights and drove through the campus, where he saw boys with their tzitzit out, looking like bnei Torah! He had been in Yeshiva University many years ago, and the boys then were not as serious as they are now. He asked me: “To what do you attribute the change?” I knew it would rub him the wrong way, so I said “Tziyonut, Zionism!” Surprised, he asked me what I meant. I explained that the boys’ parents are strong Zionists and they feel they have to send the children to Eretz Yisrael for a year or two or three to learn Torah before college, and this is how they become bnei Torah! He had never heard of this system where our young people go to yeshivot in Israel; he thought that our young people were going to Israel to study in colleges like Hebrew University. In Yiddish, he said “What do you mean? They go to university and become bnei Torah?” I said: “Not university! They go to Kerem B’Yavneh, to Sha’alvim, to Yeshivat Hakotel – to many different yeshivot!” He had never heard about any of this!
The common practice of sending young people to learn in yeshivah in Israel was instituted by Rabbi David Eliach, who recently passed away. He and some friends and colleagues were the ones who engineered this change, and that is what made a major change in the American community. It’s a huge s’char (reward)! Modern Orthodoxy used to be much further from Torah learning and mitzvah observance. But now the young people come back from yeshivah in Israel, and they have a powerful influence on their families and the entire community. We have to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut! The establishment of the State of Israel was like a new Matan Torah for American Jewry! Israel has had a tremendous impact on the community.