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Why This Haredi Rabbi Won’t Close Yeshivas Despite COVID

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The Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokach in 2018.
The Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokach in 2018.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Like many others, I also wondered why the Belzer rebbe, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, who became the “hero” of the Haredi public, certainly the Hasidim, is so blatantly ignoring the instructions of the government. After all, this is a rabbi who is usually pragmatic, who at the time sent Rabbi Israel Eichler to participate on the panel of the TV program “Popolitika,” to improve the image of the Haredi community among secular people. So why aren’t the Haredi yeshivas being closed?

The answer to this question is simple: The Belzer Rov, who knows his flock, is afraid that if he orders the yeshivas to close, when the time comes to open them there won’t be anyone to open them for.

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It’s an open secret that the yeshivas are suffering from the departure of avrechim, specifically young students. Everyone knows that quite a few of them shouldn’t have been there in the first place, since it’s clear that a mission of constant study, in the spirit of the verse “And you shall meditate upon it [Torah] day and night,” isn’t suitable for everyone. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic provided the excuse for those who are unable to really find their place in the yeshivas, and the abandonment during this period has increased significantly.

The Gerrer rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, closed the yeshivas at the start of the pandemic, until he saw the high dropout rate. His followers, who are used to a strict regimen of mashgichim [supervisors], were like sheep without a shepherd and scattered in all directions.

The Belzer rov, on the other hand, realized from the start that there would be a problem. These things are said outright in an article posted by the sage Rabbi Pinchas Friedman, head of the Belz kollels (yeshivas for married men), on the Haredi website “Behadrei Haredim”: “People are waving the verse, ‘Guard your lives very carefully,’ [lit. “your souls”] and that’s true, but we have to remember that there are two ‘souls’ here, a spiritual and a material one.

“Therefore, more than we have to guard the material soul so it will be able to observe the Torah commandments, to the same degree we have to ensure that the spiritual soul won’t be lost in order to save the soul. … We have before us a minor battle and a major battle. The minor battle is over matters of the body and mental health, the major and far more important battle is over the Jewish soul and matters of spirituality. Will there be anyone for whom to preserve the body?!”

The rabbis took the hint. Even those who at the beginning of the pandemic closed the yeshivas. There are some who believe that refraining from closing the yeshivas is a smart strategy when it comes to preserving the existence of their organization. Some of them say that even though there really are many sick yeshiva students, there aren’t many dead and therefore even the price is not too high.

Because even they know that the number of Haredi youths living on the streets who don’t want to return to the yeshivas is steadily growing. They walk around with a “nonkosher phone” (with internet access) in their pockets – still with sidelocks and a kippa, but it’s not clear for how long. The executive director of Hillel, an organization that helps those who want to leave the fold, told me that the number of those turning to them has doubled.

Many of these young men are thrown out of their homes. Alone and miserable they sleep in public parks and abandoned buildings. They’re confused, afraid, but their eyes have been opened. Maybe they’ll maintain a religious lifestyle, but they don’t want to return to the yeshiva.

This is where the secular community can take action – to help these young men find their place and become part of Israeli society.

Rikki Sprinzak was an editor of “Popolitika” and “Mishal Kham” on TV’s Channel 2.

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