Baruch Chait: Broadening the Narrow Bridge

Nati Tucker
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Nati Tucker

Every Thursday night hundreds of students gather in the cafeteria of the Maarava Machon Rubin yeshiva high school, in the town of Matityahu.

The scene looks routine for the yeshiva world, but the students' purpose is far from usual. In the middle of the cafeteria sit students with guitars. As they strum, the group breaks out in song.

"Hear my prayer, O Lord, heed my cry for help," they sing.

The man leading this chorus is the founding head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Baruch Chait.

His outward appearance does not bring to mind a yeshiva head. Chait is clean-shaven and wears a suit and tie that seem more befitting to a mature Hollywood star than a rabbi.

Chait has a distinguished musical resume. In the 1960s he was a member of the U.S. Hasidic band Rabbis' Sons. He is also credited with composing melodies that have entered Israeli secular consciousness, such as the one for "Kol ha'olam kulo gesher tzar me'od" ("The world is a narrow bridge" ), which he wrote while performing for Israeli soldiers during the Yom Kippur War.

Baruch Chait

In fact, for 25 years Chait has been building bridges from the reclusive Haredi world to employment and general studies. He has carved out a niche in a community that fights tooth and nail against efforts to introduce nonreligious studies into its schools.

His yeshiva is one of the few in the Haredi world to combine religious studies with an advanced liberal arts curriculum. studies. Maarava Machon Rubin takes pride in the fact that 99.9% of its graduates enter the real world with matriculation (bagrut ) certificates.

Chait's first steps in the Israeli yeshiva world were anything but smooth.

In 1995, Haredi leaders did not appreciate the arrival of an American, with the soul of an artist, who sought to teach English, math and geography to his yeshiva students. Yet Chait managed to secure the blessing, albeit silent, of a number of leading rabbis.

Eight hundred students have passed through Chait's yeshiva.

He wants graduates to be able to earn a living, Chait says. "We educate our students to demonstrate good values and proper behavior. The boys at Maarava are at the start of their journeys. Later they will decide whether they want to be Torah scholars, doctors or lawyers. We need to give them the tools to embark on any path they choose, so they don't find themselves at a dead end. This is God's will. In the book of ethics entitled 'Hovot Halevavot' ('Duties of the Heart' ), it is written that in creating the world God did not intend for everyone to occupy the same plane. He created different people so that each would find his or her own place according to that person's talent and heart's desire."

Religious and secular studies

Maarava, whose name derives from the Talmudic term for the Land of Israel, isn't the only yeshiva to offer both religious and secular instruction. It was predated by Hayishuv Hahadash.

Under Rabbi Yehuda Koldetzki, Hayishuv Hahadash was considered an elitist institution that produced numerous prominent graduates, including powerhouse attorney Yaakov Weinroth. In recent years, however, particularly since Koldetzki's death, Maarava has gained ground. Moreover, a number of Maaravaesque yeshivot have been established, including Nehora and Nehardea.

Although the Haredi leadership adamantly opposes teaching general subjects in yeshivot, Maarava graduates have successfully joined the Haredi mainstream. Many continue onto religious studies at prestigious yeshivot until they marry. That's when they generally realize that a modicum of liberal arts education, even a bagrut, has its benefits.

Attitude change takes time. Secular studies have yet to take hold among the Haredi leadership. But under the surface, cracks are appearing.

Meanwhile, Chait is weary of branding himself a revolutionary.

"I'm a small man compared to the giants of this generation," Chait says. "I don't lead nor am I an adjudicator of Jewish law. But they have also understood that while it is forbidden to harm Haredi education, people must have the option to choose their path."