When classes are arranged and taught in circles, and the most important thing is the student's soul, and the yeshiva's nature changes according to its students and the spirit of the time, these are all probably what put "Makor Chaim" at the forefront of the renewed yeshiva scene. On the occasion of the crowdfunding campaign for the new permanent campus, we spoke with Rabbi Dov Singer, Rosh Yeshiva and founder of "Beit Midrash Le'Hitchadshut", to understand what is behind more than thirty years of a slightly different education.
In order to understand a story well it is important to start from the beginning. By examining the first days of "Makor Chaim", it is possible to understand how it became the pioneer of the new educational and Torah revolution in Israel.
It all started a few decades ago, when Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz invited two key figures, Rabbi Menahem Froman and Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (also known as HaRav Shagar), to establish a Yeshiva known then as "Shefa Makor Chaim". Although it was short lived, it created a ripple effect which caused a shift in the balance of power within Religious Zionism in general, and changed the direction of the Hasidic Movement within Religious Zionism in particular.
One year later, Rabbi Steinsaltz decided the yeshiva should also teach younger students, and asked Rabbi Dov Singer to help recruit them. Later Rabbi Singer became the Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva High School "Makor Chaim" in its current form. "I was pretty young and I never dreamt I would enter the educational field, and certainly not wind up in a yeshiva high school", he recounted humbly. "It was summer, in Tammuz, when I told the rabbi I needed to think about it. Immediately he said to me "No, no, no, I am talking about the upcoming school year that will open next month, in Elul. Makor Chaim yeshiva came to life that day and has been up and running ever since".
"It took me a while to realize that Rabbi Adin had no ambition to establish an educational institution in his name", admits Rabbi Singer, "he was already a well-known personality and had done great things in his life. In time I understood that he realized books were not enough, and to make a revolution, (he perceived himself as a revolutionary), he would need the representatives and ambassadors, of the motto he adopted "Let My People Know". For him the Torah is a treasure belonging to the whole nation of Israel and this treasure must not remain only with the "nobility". He dedicated his entire life to this purpose, traveling the world in order to make the Torah accessible to all Jews.
"We Deal with Souls, Not Just Tablets"
This educational approach can be found everywhere at the Makor Chaim Yeshiva in Kfar Etzion; in every corner, every stone, every lesson and in every person, student, rabbi, teacher and instructor. They all fully accept and present the model of a new willing spirit that is renews within them year by year. It is a model that presents an educational philosophy and a unique worldview which puts the student's personal development, as an individual, at its center.
"In general, the educational emphasis focuses on both the educational activity, and also on what takes place in between planned educational experiences," explains Rabbi Singer. "Although there are studies here, we deal a lot with relationships, bonds and personality. Often schools and yeshiva high schools deal with pedagogic and educational content and forget that the student is a person and he is the most important subject. We deal with souls and not just tablets. In our yeshiva it is called white fire, unlike the written letters, the black fire, which is limited, the white fire, is the whole space and everything in between. There is a reason they say: "zachu shchina beniehem", if they merit, the Holy Presence is between them.
Another point raised by Rabbi Singer is the fact that the Hebrew word for high school is "tichon". According to him, high school is perceived as a transition period and most students are considered raw materials that are supposed to grow and become adults like us. "All our lives we are preparing for the next thing," he explains, "there is a preparatory course for first grade, and there is a preparatory course for middle school, there is a preparatory course for the army, for the SAT, for university. This mentality fails to understand that life occurs at all times and at every age. The term "high school" is an adult conspiracy to label children as children, but for the students themselves it is a significant part of their life. They should experience it as a period worth living, and shouldn't just want to go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. People think that Bar Mitzvahs should be celebrated at the age of thirteen? Who said you shouldn't do a Bar Mitzvah at the age of twenty or thirty? Rabbi Steinsaltz would say even at the age of eighty. They are committed to the mitzvahs and the responsibility they entail, and to a Jewish way of life, so who are we to belittle them? In our culture, when you want to praise someone, you call them a 'Talmid Chacham', a wise student, for a reason. The essence of man is to always be a student, to always learn. We do not study until the age of 18 and then start living life. We understand that education occurs only through shared learning. Talmud Torah is neither teaching nor learning. It is an event that is happening".
"Learn How to Operate This Thing Called 'Man'"
An educational statement like this, begs the question what can actually be learned in a way that allows each student to grow up to be the person he is. "Our ambition is for the yeshiva to be a place of 'avodat hashem', for students to come to attend school in order to advance and become people closer to themselves and consequently to G-d," Rabbi Singer explains. "It isn't enough to be born and get a birth certificate. One has to be able to cope with life and the various challenges is poses, to understand the essence being human and of relationships. The most important thing that can be taught and learned during one's early years is to recognize his relationship with his source of life. He was not born without reason; rather he belongs to a sublime people with laws and teachers. He needs to understand that the laws aren't just technical obligations, followed just to mark a checkbox in heaven, but rather to live life to the fullest".
According to this approach, the ability to pray for example is not just a task, but a skill and ability that makes life look completely different. "It's a life-changing skill," he adds, "and you should learn it at a young age because in old age it's harder to start. Life is a huge thing and you have to come to it from a place of attentiveness and openness. When you come from such a place you understand that everything that happens in life is God's way of communicating with us. The Sanhedrin knew seventy languages; Mathematics and English are languages too. The endless challenge is to incorporate everything during adolescence in a way that will not weigh the students down or encourage competition, but will become a part of a life full of joy and vitality. It is a very big challenge that requires fine-tuning, creating a space for everyone and not to giving up, all on a daily basis".
The Yeshiva of the Circle – Not the Line
This rich educational doctrine becomes a reality in the yeshiva. As opposed to the "Yeshivot HaKav", The yeshiva boasts the title of "yeshiva of the circle", since during many events, classes and programs the participants sit in a circle. "The form affects the content, in fact something different is created in these events", Rabbi Singer adds, "When you sit in a circle, everyone is at an equal distance from the center. There is something egalitarian about it, not in the democratic sense of the word but in the sense that everyone is a learning person. The role of education is not to see a student as raw material to be molded as I see fit, but rather create an interpersonal experience that changes me as well. When I return home, I do not ask what I taught but what I learned. When I talk to students, most of the work is self-directed. When I say a student that he is "problematic", I mean that he is my problem, not that he has the problem. Our job is to supply fertilizer, irrigation, light and sun - but the students themselves are the ones who make the yeshiva what it is. The term "everyone receives" is not a slogan. It is the understanding that everyone who comes does so to receive the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, everyone: the teachers, the maintenance people, the secretaries, all are welcome to join the process of learning".
So, it is not possible to actually define Makor Chaim?
"In Birkot HaTorah we bless "who gave us the Torah of truth and implanted eternal life within us". A graduate who enters the Beit Midrash or meets his friends feels that he has arrived home, as if nothing has ever changed. On the other hand, the beauty of this place is that it is as dynamic and changing as the landscape of its community. The yeshiva itself has undergone changes, starting in Jerusalem, moving to Kfar Etzion, and now the construction of the new permanent campus on Derech Ha'Avot in Neve Daniel. Every such point, and many intermediate points, are turning points and represent a change that expresses attentiveness to the needs and wants of the staff and students, who continuously re-create the atmosphere and camaraderie that characterize the yeshiva".
In other words, the yeshiva belongs to the students?
"It can be said that much of what happens depends on them and done in partnership with them, it creates a unique mix. A question that came up a lot recently, following the Corona period zoom conversations, is who is the host? We ask the same question daily in the yeshiva. Whose yeshiva is it? The Rosh Yeshiva who started the yeshiva and makes the rules? The rabbis and teachers? I remember once talking to boys from another yeshiva who told me they went to their Rosh Yeshiva to complain. After they told him what the problem was his response was that as valid as their complaint may be, students are like bottles; after a few years on the shelf, they leave. "You are here for a year or two and we are here forever, therefore we decide". For me it is the complete opposite. There is a place here that has clear traditions, but at the same time all the partners influence what happens".
"We Actually Say – "the Yeshiva Is Yours"
Now, the yeshiva is launching a crowdfunding campaign in favor of building a large campus that will be a permanent home for the Makor Chaim community and its enterprises. Here too the special approach of partnership and camaraderie is evident in all its circles and partners over the years. "Crowdfunding is not just a matter of money", explains Rabbi Singer. "The money expresses a call to come and become partners. We are actually saying "it is yours as well as ours and it's bigger than any of us". We really want it to belong to everyone; it should express everyone's participation and say that we are a community. The yeshiva structure is a real, concrete thing, and when so many people are happy to take part in its erection–It adds strength and conviction".
Even though all the friends of Makor Chaim were called to donate to the cause, Rabbi Singer says he personally found it difficult to go out and ask for help from the public.
Why did you begin this campaign despite your reservations?
"I realized that the yeshiva does not belong to me or to anyone who is here today. The yeshiva belongs to all generations, to everyone who is connected and everyone who loves it. The money we raise is not only so that we have what to eat tomorrow morning, but also to build a shrine that is a source of life for Klal Israel, a source of life for everyone. In fact, this is an expression of the historic agreement between Issachar and Zebulun, and this is something essential, because it is possible to be a partner in all sorts of ways".
"Over the years, many educators and Rosh Yeshivas have passed through here and absorbed from what is happening here", he concludes. Many educators have attended the Beit Midrash Le'Hitchadshut and changed the public discourse due to the yeshiva. This is just not about one more yeshiva high school; it's about a rejuvenating idea, a strong hope, deep listening and great prayer that with God's help we will succeed".