Many in the New Jersey Jewish community are fortunate to benefit from a familiarity with various Israeli yeshivot and midrashot, whether as alumni themselves or as parents of alumni or current students. These institutions, and aspects of their worldview, have made inroads in the American modern Orthodox community over the decades, which has had an obvious impact on its communal life. Most in the modern Orthodox community seem to view this impact positively based on the strong numbers of post-high school students who continue to be sent to Israel for a gap year after graduating from local high schools. There are, of course, alternatives to the traditional yeshiva or midrasha gap year experience, which may be gaining in popularity as graduating high school students develop ever more diverse needs or expectations from their gap year.
Alongside that development here in the U.S., a new spirit in Israeli religious life is emerging from quarters less well known in the U.S., including the small town of Otniel, which is nestled in the Chevron Hills along the “Derech HaAvot,” or “Pathway of the Forefathers,” between Chevron and Be’er Sheva. Otniel is home to Yeshivat Otniel, which was founded in the late 1980s as a local kollel and grew into one of Israel’s largest hesder yeshivot, in which students combine Torah learning with army service. Like Yeshivat Har Etzion, Otniel is co-led by two Roshei Yeshiva: Rav Benny Kalmanson and Rav Re’em Ha’Cohen. Rav Kalmanson is a student of Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Rav Shagar), z”l. Rav Ha’Cohen is a student of each of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, z”l; Rav Aryeh Bina, z”l; and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, z”l. The fruitful tension between their backgrounds and styles, combined with their mutual eclecticism, has opened up new paths of Torah learning and spiritual growth in the Religious Zionist community in Israel that the U.S. Jewish community would benefit from understanding and even experiencing.
Otniel’s physical architecture was designed to allow in as much light as possible, an openness that is reflected in the atmosphere of its beit midrash, where no sincerely motivated question is off limits. Indeed, the yeshiva’s youngest students are encouraged to raise thoughtful points of argument with their rabbanim, even with the roshei yeshiva. This spirit of openness flows through Otniel’s curriculum as well, which has students engage with nominally secular academic topics such as history and philosophy in a way that is integrated into their Torah learning and spiritual development. The study of Chasidic thought, especially that of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, is much closer to the core of the yeshiva’s curriculum than is the case at other hesder yeshivot, as is the study of kabbalah for students beginning around age 22. There is also a focus on the psychological aspects of Judaism and cultivating spiritual growth through creative expression and the arts. This innovative and holistic approach to Torah learning, intellectual life and spiritual growth has attracted a diverse student body by the standards of Israeli Religious Zionist society, and these students tend to be high achievers academically. Otniel is also home to a women’s beit midrash that has grown out of the popularity of the yeshiva’s approach.
Otniel’s style of learning has gained popularity in Israel, but it remains relatively unknown in the U.S. One point of connection is Rav Yakov Nagen (Genack), an American from the Upper West Side who was educated at Yeshiva College and received smicha from RIETS. Rav Nagen himself has made headlines through his work in interfaith dialogue with the Muslim world. He has also attracted something of a following due to his interest in exploring the inner spiritual world of central halachic texts like the Mishna and for citing ideas from eastern religions in order to better understand certain esoteric teachings of Judaism. However, outside of Rav Nagen and a handful of American students, including some from the Teaneck/Bergenfield community, Otniel has not yet developed a relationship with the U.S. Jewish community like that of some other hesder yeshivot.
This may not be simply a matter of institution building and development outreach. Rabbi Professor Alan Brill, the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair for Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, is perhaps one of few Bergen County residents currently able to grasp the significance of Otniel’s unique attributes in both intellectual and sociological terms. In a recent phone conversation with this writer, Professor Brill indicated that the differences between the Otniel beit midrash and the typical American modern Orthodox beit midrash, not to mention the way a kind of “outward spirituality” manifests itself at Otniel, suggests that the approach to learning at Otniel might feel foreign to many in the American modern Orthodox community.
Nevertheless, a step in building Otniel’s presence in the U.S. was taken here in New Jersey this year with the arrival of Rav Yishai and Yiskah Klein, who moved to Teaneck last summer from Otniel with their three children. They are currently teaching as Israeli shlichim at Ben Porat Yosef, where their children are also attending school and where they plan to stay for a couple of years before returning to Israel. In a recent conversation with this writer, Rav Klein, who is a Ram in the Otniel boys’ high school, stated that “the yeshiva is very much interested in developing a deeper relationship with the American Jewish community.” Rav Klein noted that Michael Mark, hy”d, the former director of the yeshiva who was tragically murdered in a terror attack in July 2016, was previously engaged in this effort and the yeshiva will continue his work.
It remains to be seen whether the number of American students who ultimately learn at Otniel increases to a level similar to that of the more familiar traditional yeshivot. However, the influence of Otniel’s style can already be felt in the U.S., whether it be through the Kleins’ shlichut in New Jersey or the yeshiva’s YouTube channel and robust online presence. Professor Brill, through his blog, The Book of Doctrines and Opinions, has also been spreading awareness to an English-speaking audience about the philosophies of Otniel and that of other yeshivot emerging from common broader intellectual and sociological trends in Religious Zionist society. As Rav Klein puts it, Otniel’s leadership believes that “within the halachic framework, the Torah develops and grows over time, between one generation and the next.” It would behoove the current generation of modern Orthodox Jews in the U.S. to better understand this expansive view of Torah and Jewish spirituality.
For a small taste of this perspective, the entire community is invited to a shiur that Rav Klein will be giving, in easy-to-understand Hebrew, entitled “He Who Has Chosen Us From Among the Nations,” at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck on Shabbat, April 22, following Mincha at 7:10 p.m.
By Robert Blum
Robert Blum lives in Teaneck with his wife and four children.