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Reflections on Yeshiva High Schools
December 2009
 
We had parent teacher conferences on Sunday for my 14 year old son Avraham. Avraham’s our first boy after four daughters, so choosing a high school for him had been a new experience. Dormitory schools are pretty standard, especially for boys, and I tried not to be insulted that my independent son happily gravitated to schools far away from home! There are so many options, but Avraham had quickly narrowed down the options last year and applied and got accepted to a Yeshiva high school in the Galilee. And this was to be our first chance to see him in his new surroundings.
 

Our time slot was for 3:30 in the afternoon but we left early to allow for the close to two-hour drive and to give ourselves time to tour the area a bit. Avraham had been home for Shabbat so he was with us in the car, quiet at first in the back seat, but perking up as we drove further north. He started pointing out intersections and landmarks where he would pass or hitch rides every time he’d travel back and forth. There are bus options for Avraham to make the trip, but the busses don’t come that often and the route is long and indirect. Avraham prefers the hitching option, relying on his independent spirit, good sense of direction and the kindness of strangers to get him there and back. It was such fun seeing the enthusiasm in his eyes… the way his whole body language spoke of pleasure and pride in the area he had come to know and love.

As we drove, the scenery changed and soon the rocky terrain of Samaria was replaced with the green green fields and hills of the lower Galilee. We had packed a picnic lunch and allowed Avraham to direct us to a spot his school had visited. We drove as close as we could to the hill, passing herds of grazing cows, and climbed up the last bit after Avraham, who was scrambling lightly ahead of us. And then the view! Checkerboard fields with varying shades of rich, brown, overturned earth, and the greens of newly sown pastures. And when we turned the other way, we were graced with a view of the Kinneret- the Sea of Galilee, spread out in all its peaceful, sparkling blue glory.

Avraham’s Yeshiva is a special place. Besides being renowned for its demanding Bible and Talmud curriculum, it offers a high-level of secular studies. But what makes it unique is that it is also a High School for Environmental Studies. Nature… the land… is the students’ classroom. The breathtaking setting of the lower Galilee offers the boys a hands-on learning experience. Every second Tuesday the boys leave the campus for a day of learning under the open sky. Picture them. Teenage boys, in open sandals and baseball caps leaning over an overturned rock, their almost manly hands delicately examining a purple bloom edged with thorns. Every rock and flower, every path through a wooded forest, becomes a lesson in learning about their beloved Biblical land. Each class’s counselor, besides being hired to handle the usual homesick children, homework problems and messy dorm rooms, is also a professional tour guide.

After hiking for a while, the boys drop to the ground for a glug of water from their two-liter bottles. They burrow into their backpacks for their pocket-sized Bibles wrapped in protective nylon, turn a few well-worn pages and turn to their guide, their teacher, waiting for an explanation. They read appropriate verses aloud from the Scriptures about their forefathers who walked through this same bit of wilderness, who smelled the same outdoor scents… and the words come to life… as they internalize spiritually, their people’s history.

Every trip can turn from a lesson in geography, to archeology, botany, to Bible studies, or history. The boys have stiff-backed clipboards in their backpacks so they can take careful notes about what they are hearing. Because after every field trip, they have to prepare a neat, clear summary of what they learned.

Each grade takes part in two week-long trips every year. During the four years of his high school career, Avraham will get to focus on the coastline, the Galilee, the Golan Heights, the hills of Judea, Samaria and the desert. These trips are called workshops because the boys prepare for them extensively before they start out. Avraham had his first workshop last month. It was titled “The Shores and the Seas” and for weeks beforehand the boys were immersed in practical details and researching. But they were also given a spiritual angle. Their rabbi discuss with them the meaning of oceans and winds, the symbolism and implications of water and waves, tides and sand. Avraham was enthralled. And when they went on their trip, they continued enjoying that wonderful mix. They met oceanographers who sat on the beaches with them, examining the snails and turtles creeping out of the sand and being washed up out of the water. And they huddled under a tarpaulin during a sudden downpour, staring quietly at the crashing waves, as their rabbi gave a dramatic description of Creation, as G-d took a universe, formless and empty, and separated the waters into skies and seas, establishing a world of order and wonder. I remember Avraham telling me about this wonderful moment, and realized he will probably remember this for the rest of his life.

At 3:30, we left our picnic and went to the Yeshiva campus to speak to Avraham’s principal and teachers. They all mentioned how impressive it was that, without having any of his old friends with him, without previously knowing anyone at all, and traveling so far from where he lives, Avraham seems so at home at the Yeshiva. They all claim that he took to the whole program as a fish to water. Frankly, I wasn’t surprised. This place is so tailored to my Avraham. You see, Avraham was our first child born here in Israel. Our first Sabra. And he never knew what it meant to leave America and make the move to Israel. He took for granted that Israel was his rightful home and he grew up assuming this was his land and he can walk any part of it. From the time he was just a small boy, we would go on family hikes, and Avraham would find a good strong stick and lead the way through a thorny thicket, scuttle up the almost vertical face of a rock, or peel off his shirt and splash into a water reservoir.

Avraham grew up part of the Biblical Heartland and he always had a special attachment to the Samaria landscape. He spent a good part of his Bar Mitzvah money on things connected to hiking and camping on the land. He bought himself just the right backpack for day trips, a portable mini burner kit and a metal round outdoor stove for baking pita. This is what he does for fun. For years, when Avraham would want to do something with his friends at night, they’d go out a bit beyond the houses of the community, to a nice solitary spot among the weeds and under the star-lit sky, and they’d gather twigs, light a small fire, find some snippings of mint leaves that grow wild there, and sit around drinking tea and singing along with his guitar. Two months ago, he was finally at home for a couple of days for the Feast of Tabernacles, and he still didn’t just hang around the house. He was restless to get out on the land he had missed. He made some phone calls to a half a dozen friends, packed a bag with his mini-burner, matches and small mugs, a jar of Turkish coffee, some bread and humus, and followed our security road down into our own beautiful, flowering riverbed of Wadi Kana.

So, of course Avraham took to this place so completely. The boys in schools like this are getting the best of both worlds. They get to sit in a Study Hall with other young men, sitting by their volumes of Talmud, discussing the challenging intricacies of Biblical Law with their rabbis and peers. And they get to be part of this outdoor fieldwork, encouraging a love and a deep attachment to their Creator, His creations and His land. I asked Avraham if he realizes how privileged he is to be in such a place and he answered sweetly and simply, that he does.

These boys- my boy- is getting an education of value- an education that gives them a strong grounding in the Scriptures, a knowledge of the lay of the land, and a spiritual sensitivity and devotion, so important for our future generation. I pray that my young Avraham grows into a man of value who will be both proud of his country and make his country proud.

Shalom,

Shira Schwartz
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