One of the world's largest Jewish outreach organizations, Aish HaTorah, will be a hesder yeshiva as of next September.
Aish HaTorah, which is based in Jerusalem's Old City but boasts some 25 international centers around the world, was granted permission to operate the program - which combines yeshiva study with army service - last month, after a year-long application process.
As part of the new program, yeshiva officials are hoping to attract more than two dozen new students from Israel and abroad.
"Many of our students have gone to the army, but in the past, they have had to leave the yeshiva," director of public relations Rabbi Ephraim Shore said. "As a hesder, they will be able to stay with us during their service. We believe strongly in strengthening the State of Israel, and when our students express interest in serving in the army, we always encourage it."
Aish HaTorah, which is particularly popular among the newly religious, enjoys financial support from a number of well-known philanthropists, including telecommunications mogul Howard Jonas. In fact, it was Jonas who encouraged the yeshiva to pursue the hesder path, and later helped the organization make its way through army and governmental bureaucracy.
The yeshiva emphasizes outreach programs, but that will not be the hesder program's focus," Shore explained.
"We equip our students to deal with people who have a weaker Jewish background and our specialty is communal outreach toward others," he said. "In the army, our students will be meeting secular people, and hopefully, they will be able to communicate Judaism in a meaningful way. But that's an informal goal."
The regular yeshiva program now has 150 full-time students, most of whom will remain without enlisting in the hesder track. Classes are offered in a range of English, Hebrew, Spanish and Russian, and as many as 4,500 students learn at the center's Jerusalem headquarters every year.
Although Aish HaTorah is somewhat affiliated with the black hat, ultra-Orthodox community, it celebrates Israeli Independence Day and states in its official policy that the State of Israel is a "divine gift." Some 500 people have immigrated to Israel through involvement in Aish, 10 percent of whom, according to some estimates, have enlisted in the IDF.
"A lot of our students become interested in serving in the army," Shore said, "and now it will be easier for us to help them in a more formal way."
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