Machon Lev at the crossroads
by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 16, 2005
A remarkable gathering took place 2 Sivan, at the Beit Vegan campus of Machon Lev. Over 300 graduates of Machon Lev came to protest the previous week's firing of the entire rabbinic staff by the president of the Jerusalem College of Technology (of which Machon Lev is the flagship institution).
Most of those present wore knitted kippot, but there were black kippot in the crowd, and a smattering of black hats as well. There were veteran immigrants from the former Soviet Union, as well as recent graduates of SHUVU high schools; Ethiopians and products of Machon Lev’s program for American high school graduates. Two of the speakers were attired in their military uniforms, and the others came from senior positions in the hi-tech industry.
What they shared in common was that they had all learned in the same beis medrash and been shaped by the rabbinical staff headed by Rabbi Nosson Bar-Chaim, who came to Machon Lev more than three decades ago. They came to express their hakaros hatov to the rabbonim who had changed their lives and their determination that the unique vision upon which Machon Lev was founded continue to guide it in the years to come.
The three main speakers all addressed themselves to the vision of Machon Lev's founder, Professor Zev Lev, a talmid of Gateshead Yeshiva and a world class physicist.
Machon Lev, they stressed, is not just an academic institution where it is possible to learn a few hours a day with a chavrusa or to find a beis medrash, but one in which the beis medrash is an integral part of the institution and the goal of the institution is to produce graduates who bear the stamp of the Torah in whatever field they enter. One of the speakers quoted the Kotzker Rebbe to the effect that HaKadosh Baruch Hu has enough malachei hakodesh (holy angels), what He needs is anshei kodesh (holy people) – those whose lives are guided by Torah and whose every endeavor is undertaken in light of the Torah.
A letter was read from Professor Zev Lev, in which he describes how he laid out his original vision for Machon Lev to Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky. Reb Yaakov asked him a number of penetrating questions, and then made certain stipulations for Machon Lev – stipulations, which Professor Lev writes, had for him the force of psak din. One of those was that the status of the rabbinical staff would be identical to that of the academic staff. The rabbis would also have tenure, and draw salaries comparable to that of the professors. Most importantly, they would have an institutionalized role in the entire running of Machon Lev, as members of the faculty senate and on academic committees. Only in this fashion could the vision of the beis medrash as the heart of Machon Lev be guaranteed.
The speakers all testified to the extent to which the beis medrash has always been the "heart of Machon Lev, on whose merit Machon Lev's existence and good name depends until today." In addition, they spoke of how the beis medrash and the rabbonim were the "point of connection for the majority of the graduates of Machon Lev." As one of them put it, "When no one still remembers who was the president of Jerusalem College of Technology in 5765, there will still be dozens who will continue to call HaRav [Bar-Chaim] for advice, and generations of children and grandchildren will still look at the picture of him marrying their parents." How could it be, he wondered, that rabbonim who had given their live blood to Machon Lev, over decades, and who still "maintain continuous contact with hundreds of graduates" were so unceremoniously fired.
The final speaker described how those who had learned in Machon Lev had sent their sons to learn there as well, and how those sons in turn dreamed of sending their sons. But on one condition: that Machon Lev remains devoted to the same unique vision of producing engineers and administrators who are bnei Torah and does not become another academic institution with lecturers in Judaism.
The outcome of the struggle currently taking place at Machon Lev will have consequences for virtually every segment of Israeli religious society. Machon Lev stands as an all too rare example of the unifying power of the Torah. Not only do the students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, so do the rabbonim. The rabbinical staff includes Sephardim and Ashkenazim; Lithuanians and Chassidim; black-hatters and those who wear kippot serugot.
The shared dedication of the rabbinical staff to shaping bnei Torah has allowed them to overcome the many differences between them over the years.
In addition, Machon Lev remains perhaps the only place in the country in which boys from weak learning backgrounds in the national religious high school system, new immigrants, and ba'alei teshuva can receive an intense Torah education from rabbis who do not view themselves as just classroom teachers, but as models for a Torah life.
The proposed Gaza withdrawal has plunged a large swath of the national religious world into a spiritual crisis. Many who were raised to believe that they were at the vanguard of a movement to reclaim the Land have turned their heads to find that not only is nobody following, but that they are actively despised by a large segment of the Israeli secular population. Many religious youth have despaired of being able to preserve their religious identity and be part of the larger society, and have opted to ape their secular counterparts.
In this situation, the existence of an institution like Machon Lev, which has produced generations of national religious graduates, who hold their heads high as proud Torah Jews, even as they enter the most sophisticated areas of the Israeli business world, becomes more crucial than ever.
The impact of the current dispute at Machon Lev will be felt even by the chareidi world. In recent years, the Jerusalem College of Technology has become the umbrella organization for almost all of the academic programs aimed at members of the chareidi world. The willingness of some chareidim to participate in programs under JCT's sponsorship has been, in part, a consequence of the esteem in which Rabbi Bar-Chaim is held by many leading chareidi rabbinic figures, both past and present, and the knowledge that the rabbinic staff of JCT has a large say in ensuring that it is run according to the ruach HaTorah. Should that view change, it could have immense consequences for professional training in the chareidi world.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society
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