How does he do it?

How does he do it?

Israeli superhero educator Menachem Bombach is from Mea Shearim — and the IDF

Rabbi Menachem Bombach speaks on Yom Ha’Atzmaut
Rabbi Menachem Bombach speaks on Yom Ha’Atzmaut

We are all so exhausted from this year. Even those of us who don’t live in Israel. Yom Ha’Atzmaut has come and gone, and there were celebrations, but they were muted. Tear-stained. While we sang ‘Hatikvah,’ many of us wondered where the end to all this sadness may lie. When will the hostages be found? When will the thousands of reservists, some of whom have been called up a second time, be allowed to rejoin their families? What will life in Israel be like “the day after”?

While most of us have been consumed with worry about how Israel will emerge from this prolonged crisis, there are some people — I think of them as behind-the-scenes superheroes — who have stayed steadfast in their mission, knowing that there will indeed be a day after, even if we can’t see it right now. And Israel has to be ready for that day.

I’ve had the privilege of meeting one of those people, a man who has been laser-focused on Israel’s future for more than a dozen years. Somehow, the current war, which seems to use up all our bandwidth, has not distracted him from his mission. His name is Menachem Bombach, and he definitely doesn’t present like a superhero.

In fact, if you met Menachem, your first thought might be, “Which of these things is not like the others?” His beard, along with the bekishe — the long black frock coat — that he often wears, definitely signals chasidish. He speaks almost-perfect American English — it’s self-taught — and has the poise of a polished PR pro. Add to the mix the IDF uniform that he dons when called to serve on the home front, and you get a walking microcosm of the contradictions that define Israeli society.

Rabbi Bombach is unique — and here that overused word is to be taken literally, because literally there is no one like him in the Jewish world today — in his determination to use those contradictions to strengthen the State of Israel.

That seems like a tall order, even before the trauma of October 7. But if you think back to last summer, before that black Shabbat, you will recall an Israel that was riven by deep divisions, a fissure that brought to the surface the mini-tremors and submerged cracks that long have threatened the unity of Israeli society.

The most destabilizing of these potential metaphoric earthquakes is the fault line that separates Israel’s charedi and secular populations. While we all have been moved by the images of charedim bringing food to Israeli soldiers over the past months, we also know that the rifts between these two sectors of Israeli society are likely to reappear when life in Israel gets back to normal (whatever “normal” will be).

I first met Menachem Bombach when he became principal of Lezion Berina, a religious school for Russian-speaking boys in Israel. My husband and I got involved because we both speak Russian, have strong ties to the Russian-Jewish community both in the United States and in Israel, and believed (and still believe) in the school’s mission: to provide children from the former Soviet Union with a strong Jewish identity in a warm and accepting setting that allows them to become proud, knowledgeable Jews in the modern State of Israel.

Rabbi Bombach’s journey to Lezion Berina was remarkable enough. Born to a family from the Vizhnitz chasidic sect in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Mea Shearim, he ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in public policy from Hebrew University. And he did so having learned Hebrew (also self-taught) when he was 20, after hearing only Yiddish for the first two decades of his life.

Rabbi Bombach is surrounded by Netzach graduates.

With those credentials, it is no wonder the school’s team brought him on board. But emigration from Russia was slowing down (this was a decade before the current war between Russian and Ukraine), and the school’s administration wondered how they would continue to fill the seats.

As one of the few chasidim who had already bridged the two worlds of charedi and secular Israel, Rabbi Bombach began to act on a situation that long had troubled him. He knew that given the high birth rate and low earning power of the charedim, Israel would face a severe demographic and economic crisis in the coming years if something weren’t done to start integrating ultra-Orthodox Israelis into mainstream society.

So Rabbi Bombach did something.

He decided to take the framework of Lezion Berina and launch a school for chasidim that would teach secular subjects and prepare its students for the bagrut, Israel’s university entrance exam. That doesn’t sound revolutionary? Ask the local charedi community leaders who pushed back — hard — against such a concept. Its very definition threatened their way of life, or so they thought.

Despite the protests, word of mouth soon led to increased enrollment as chasidish and charedi parents saw that their sons could remain faithful to their traditions while gaining essential educational skills. These parents understood that this was the only path to achieving meaningful employment and financial stability. And Rabbi Bombach understood that this change was essential to the long-term viability of the State of Israel.

The flagship Midrasha HaChassidit is now part of a network of schools called Netzach, which boasts 10 schools, for both boys and girls. Perhaps most remarkable is the success of the Netzach Eshkolot program, which offers online instruction in core subjects for charedi students who do not have the benefit of English, math, and science classes in their schools. There are now 35,000 chareidim participating in Eshkolot. That number may seem like the proverbial drop in the bucket, but enrollment is increasing by more than 40% each year.

A watershed moment for Rabbi Bombach occurred in 2018, when a video of a classroom exercise at the school went viral. It was Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, when the entire country pays tribute to the soldiers who have lost their lives in Israel’s wars. Well, almost the entire country: In certain charedi enclaves, Yom HaZikaron is traditionally ignored, just as army service is frowned upon, or worse.

Rabbi Bombach saw Yom HaZikaron as an opportunity to normalize the IDF uniform, and the people who wear it, in charedi society. In the video, you can see Rabbi Bombach asking his students to respond to a photo of a young Israeli boy lying prostrate on his father’s grave. It is obvious that the boy is secular, and equally obvious that his father has died in battle. The students, still children themselves, can empathize with a boy whose father is never coming home. Next, each student is given the name of a fallen soldier and instructed to stand and recite tehillim (psalms) in his memory. Finally, each boy steps forward to light a memorial candle.

Nothing that occurred that day may seem so groundbreaking, but to some charedi leaders, it was downright subversive. First you ask charedi children to pray for the soul of a fallen soldier, and the next thing you know they’ll be enlisting themselves. And that is exactly what has been happening, especially since October 7. A historic number of charedim volunteered to serve in the IDF after the Simchat Torah massacre.

Not all could be accepted, of course, but even 800 draftees out of 4,000 charedi applicants is an unprecedented number. In fact, 12 graduates of Netzach schools have been serving in Gaza since the war started. (And the practice of observing Yom HaZikaron continues in all Netzach schools, a mind-blowing fact.)

For a small country, Israel has an extraordinary number of heroic citizens. Some, deservedly, are celebrities, like Eden Golan, who faced down thousands of jeering protesters at the Eurovision Song Contest. Others are more ordinary, like your cousin who has three sons serving in Gaza, yet keeps going to work and doing the laundry and watering the plants.

As the saying goes, not all superheroes wear capes. Could it be that the superhero Israel needs to ensure its future “the day after” wears two uniforms, a chasidish bekishe and IDF fatigues? I’m betting on it.

For more information on the Netzach network of schools, follow Netzach on Facebook or go to

Ann Brodsky of Fair Lawn is a lifelong educator, most recently at Hunter College. She has special interests in language and culture as well as anything related to Israel, where she spends several months each year.

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