When Yehoshua Szafanski of Teaneck was in 10th grade, he spent six weeks as an exchange student at the Mekor Chaim yeshiva at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. Now Mekor Chaim, an all-boy boarding yeshiva in the West Bank, is in the news; two of its students, Gilad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel, were kidnapped two weeks ago, along with Eyal Yifrah. Yehoshua, who recently graduated from the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy, a high school, will return to Israel in the fall for his gap year to study at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. He spoke at a Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey rally last week; here, he answers questions from the Jewish Standard by email.
JS: Tell us about Mekor Chaim.
|After he spoke at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s rally in support of the kidnapped boys, Yehoshua Szafanski answered questions from a local reporter. JFNNJ|
YS: Mekor Chaim is a yeshiva dedicated to what my mother calls “authentic Judaism.” It is a very prestigious high school that is difficult to get into. Out of the 70 spots in their freshmen class each year, hundreds upon hundreds apply. Kids aren’t only accepted based on grades, but are based on their motivation to grow as a Jew, sincerity, and seriousness. The entire yeshiva is made up of kids who are very in tune with themselves; it is a yeshiva full of spiritual “thinkers.” Such intellectual and emotional maturity is rare, but that is what the yeshiva epitomizes. I was there for six weeks, fully integrated into the yeshiva. I had Israeli roommates, Israeli learning partners, and we were fully a part of the yeshiva; yet honestly, I do not recall a single instance of bullying (either to the Americans or Israelis) while I was there. It was unbelievable. Everyone in the yeshiva walks around with a sense of purpose, realizing that they must actualize their own potential in order to contribute to society and change the world. Because of this common sense of purpose, there is an unparalleled amount of achdut (unity) in the yeshiva.
JS: Tell us about the two boys.
YS: Gilad and Naftali are a year younger than me. I just graduated MTA – I am 18 years old; they are 16 and juniors in Mekor Chaim.
Gilad sat next to me in the beit midrash (study hall). Every single morning, for hours on end, I would witness his motivation and passion, delving into the beauty of the text, always with a smile on his face. Such passion was contagious and motivated me to take full advantage of every second I was in the beit midrash. I remember Naftali strumming his guitar late at night in deep thought. We would have kumsitzes with friends. He was always there for anyone that needed a helping hand, a true gem.
JS: Did you ever hitchhike in Israel? Do you know that junction where they were picked up?
YS: I have waited for buses on numerous occasions at Tzomet HaGush. Whenever we left yeshiva we always passed it. It is a very popular area where many people wait for buses and hitchhike on a daily basis. This is not a hitchhiking problem, this is a terrorist problem. Hitchhiking is a widely used mode of transportation in Israel. They were abducted by terrorists. This is in no way the fault of my friends. If any American Jew were waiting for a bus at Tzomet HaGush and offered to help push a broken car with an Israeli license plate, he could have just as easily fallen victim. Let me repeat: Any type of diversion from discussing the finding of my friends and the capturing of the terrorists to the discussion of whether or not hitchhiking is right or wrong is disrespectful. Hitchhiking isn’t the problem. The terrorists are.
JS: If you were in a difficult experience, would your time at Mekor Chaim give you strength to endure it? How so?
YS: Mekor Chaim helps instill a sense of clarity and passion within each of its students. The daily davening there was just as passionate as the Ne’ilah services at the end of Yom Kippur in our synagogues here. Each student strives to become a true chasid, a righteous person, with a clear and passionate connection with God. Whenever I am going through times of darkness and confusion, I tend to sit down and breathe, and think back to the gorgeous views from Mekor Chaim, overlooking the scenic Gush. I breathe in the holy air and I am magically transported to a place where clarity and purpose is ever so real and pure. This is the strength of Mekor Chaim and its students.