Or perhaps the year 2000 when I received my Semicha?
Or maybe even 2005 when I became a father for the first time?
No, I don’t believe so, I believe the most important year in my life was Aug 1990- July 1991 – the year 5751. It was the year after secondary school before University, when I spent a year in Israel at Yeshivat Hakotel.
You may think that is very strange, yes of course learning Torah and Israel is important but surely marriage and family where you live the values of Torat Yisrael should be higher in terms of importance.
Additionally, even if I do believe that it is learning in Yeshiva that is primary – then why not the years 1995 – 2000 when I also was in Yeshiva, studying for Semicha.
The answer is very simple, without that year in Israel in 5751 I do not believe I would have stayed religious, therefore I would not have ever met my wife (met through mutual friends in Yeshiva in Israel) and would not have done Semicha. The Torat Yisrael that thankfully drives me in my work, family and life would have been far far weaker or non-existent.
Why do I feel that they year in yeshiva was so pivotal? And why am I telling you this now?
It is not just me who feels the crucial importance of a year learning Torah in Israel. In the JPR report in 2014 they look at various educational programmes to monitor the positive and negative impact on Jewish identity. They look at Cheder, Jewish schools, Jewish youth movements, Israel tour, gap year in Israel and a year in Yeshiva and Sem.
Of the six, only one really stands out in strengthening Jewish identity in a major way. As the paper concludes ‘Overall, Yeshiva/seminary is the most successful programme impacting on every dimension of Jewish identity in a positive way’ It then goes onto explain why.
‘What is it about these particular arenas that causes them to be more impactful than the other ones investigated? Studies in the philosophy of Jewish education point to three particular contributing factors. The first is that all of these contain a strong immersive element. Yeshiva programmes involve moving away from home, and immersing oneself completely in an entirely new and profoundly Jewish social and educational environment. This environment is typically in Israel, which for Jews who have grown up in Britain is, in and of itself, also an entirely new and profoundly Jewish environment. This context is a constant – one does not dip into it for a few hours a day or a few days a week and then leave – it is all-encompassing, informing one’s behaviours and attitudes consistently. Several educational thinkers have highlighted the importance of this, including Professor Barry Chazan who has argued, for example, that “it is the total cultural milieu that teaches, by presenting, creating and reinforcing values, ideas, experiences, norms, and ultimately a worldview.” Whilst all educational initiatives operate within some kind of cultural environment, these ones stand out by virtue of the intensity and totality of the immersion.’
That year in Yeshiva for me, had a huge impact. Judaism went from something that I did to something that I was. The relationships with the Rebbeim, the power of the Yamim Noraim, the tiyulim bringing Tenach to life and the celebrations of Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim impacted me way beyond the learning of information.
By the time I reached university, I was able to maintain my religious observance purely down to the inspiration I had received for the year in Israel. Yes, I felt I had to return every year for Elul and the Yamim Noraim – but again that was only due to understanding in my year how these experiences were the fuel that allowed me to exist in the modern world as an observant Jew. It was those experiences that motivated me into leadership both at university and BA, then UJS and ultimately Stanmore, Tribe and Mizrachi.
So why do I write now?
I write because that year in Israel is in danger. A year in Yeshiva and Sem is not cheap, it is now around £20,000 plus. For many UK families, this is impossible. Thankfully over the years Masa Israel Journey, a division of the Jewish Agency has been providing grants to UK students. Last year nearly £500,000 was given to allow anyone who wanted to, to study in Yeshiva and Sem.
Every year approximately 120 students attend Mizrachi Yeshivot and Sems, not only do they become inspired and motivated, they return to run Bnei Akiva, Sinai and Ezra, become Cheder teachers, help out in schools – and some even go on to become teachers, Rabbis and educators.
They are the lifeblood of our community.
Unfortunately, due to Covid 19, there were major cuts and the grants of £500,000 were pulled.
Thankfully World Mizrachi mobilized the Jewish world and as part of the World Zionist Organisation were able to speak to the Jewish Agency and the government, and approx. 65% has been restored, but there is still a large gap, and we know this year, even more financial help will be needed.
Therefore, this Monday and Tuesday World Mizrachi, in partnership with Mizrachi UK and 50 yeshivot and seminaries, is initiating a global campaign to support Torah institutions across Israel to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, and to secure urgently-needed scholarships for their students.
Powered by CauseMatch, the 48-hour “If I Forget You, Jerusalem” Emergency Campaign will launch on Monday, July 27, 6th Av, ahead of Tisha b’av.
It is vital we support such a crucial initiative – the future of our community depends upon it.
Moshe also understood the importance of immersive experiences.
Devarim is a wonderful sefer. It contains Moshe’s final messages to the Jewish nation before they began the journey to the promised land- without their faithful leader. So many times in the sefer he exhorts the people to keep the Torah. He reviews Matan Torah, spells out the need to teach Torah to their children and warns them of the dangers of drifting away from Torah.
How was the Torah originally transmitted? The Torah that was going to have to fuel the Jewish people for millennia. How was Moshe going to make sure that the experience of Matan Torah would be forged into our consciousness?
Think about it. It was given to us at Har Sinai when the whole nation heard and experienced Hashem. That was either the 6th or 7th of Sivan depending on the two opinions in the Gemara. And we left Parshat Behalotcha on 20th Iyar – almost exactly one year later – Bnei Yisrael had a year in the ultimate Yeshiva – Har Sinai.
For whatever reason, Hashem commanded that we not leave Har Sinai for a year, that is where we built the mishkan, that is where we celebrated our first Chagim as a nation. Once we had experienced a year at Sinai – we could now begin the journey to the promised land.
Many mistakes were made as we saw in Sefer Bamidbar, but here we are at the start of Sefer Devarim on the brink of entry into Israel – but Moshe feels the need to solidify and inspire this new generation before he takes his leave. And he remembers how it all began, what was the most important part of the journey – the year at Har Sinai – everything follows from that experience.
Our young men and women have the blessing today to be able to spend a year at ‘Har Sinai’ to drink from the wells of Torah and dwell in the land of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov. There are so many wonderful institutions that take responsibility for our future leaders and inspire and empower them to return to the UK and become the role models for our community that we desperately need. However, they need financial help to get there.
Can you imagine, the crisis of Covid 19 which originally looked to be crippling the yeshiva and sem experience could now be the catalyst which sends even more boys and girls to Yeshiva and Sem. To strengthen both Mizrachi and the institutions it supports.
Please give generously – you will be giving them the gift of the most important year of their lives.