Religious Kibbutz Movement Strives to Stem the Crisis in Its Yeshivas

The two yeshivas established by the religious kibbutz movement - one on Kibbutz Ein Tzurim in the south and the other on Kibbutz Ma'aleh Gilboa in the north - have been a source of pride for the movement and a symbol of its educational philosophy. In those yeshivas, it is legitimate to engage in a scientific examination of biblical sources, and Torah study is combined with three full years of military service in a demanding five-year program.

But after 22 years, Yeshivat Ein Tzurim, which has only a few students left, is due to officially shut its doors at the end of the year - though it does have vague hopes of reopening a year later). And while the Ma'aleh Gilboa yeshiva, founded 15 years ago, has no registration crisis (its most recent first-year class had 50 students), up to 40 percent of its students drop out of the demanding program every year. Thus officials are girding for the possibility that the Ein Tzurim crisis will spread northward.

As a result, Ma'aleh Gilboa has recently decided to add another option: Instead of offering just the shiluv track, with its three full years of military service, it will also offer a hesder track - though one involving 20 months of army service rather than the standard 16. While both tracks combine service in the Israel Defense Forces with Torah study at a yeshiva, the formats are different.

Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, one of three heads of the Ma'aleh Gilboa yeshiva, said the format of the five-year shiluv track is its main problem: It requires the student-soldiers to study in yeshiva for a year, serve in the army for 18 months, and then repeat both stages. By the time the students get used to yeshiva life, it is time to go to the army, and by the time they get used to the army, it is time to go back to yeshiva.

"It's a very demanding track, and many of our students have a hard time returning for another year in yeshiva after a year and a half has passed in the army, so they continue their military service," said Gilad. "In this way, we lose between 20 and 40 percent of the students every year."

However, others cite different causes for the kibbutz yeshivas' problems.

Rabbi Avia Cohen, who served as head of the Ein Tzurim yeshiva this year, said the main difficulty is that religious high school students have so many options upon graduation.

"Over the last few years, there has been a major increase in the number of institutions, compared to a far more moderate increase in the number of students," he said. "There are some 60 hesder yeshivas, 20 religious pre-military academies and a few academies where religious and secular study together, which are also an option. That's how it happened that not only is our yeshiva in crisis, but so are other institutions that are more identified with the religious mainstream."

In contrast, Nehemia Rappel, secretary general of the religious kibbutz movement, blamed the growing religious and political extremism of religious youth.

"The religious kibbutz yeshivas exhibit an approach that differs from the norm in both the religious and the political spheres," he said. "In the religious sphere, they exhibit an approach that is open to academic research and willing to deal seriously with problems of faith. In the political sphere, our yeshivas don't educate toward a 'leftist' line of thought; there are people with varying opinions on the staff of both yeshivas. But their very willingness to house rabbis and educators with leftist positions is considered improper. There are barely any religious educators in the cities today who will recommend that their students go to yeshivas of this type."