Eretz Hemdah is something of a rabbinical think tank for the Zionist Orthodox rabbinate. It’s where the cr?me de la cr?me of Israel’s more modern Orthodox go to train after they’ve already received rabbinic ordination from another respected institution.
Or, as one of the institution’s founders, Rabbi Yosef Carmel, explained to The Jewish Standard last week, most of your typical Orthodox rabbis receive what is called "yoreh yoreh" ordination. Consider it the master’s degree of smicha. Those who are accepted to and make it through Eretz Hemdah’s rigorous seven-year program receive what is called, "yadin yadin" ordination. Consider it the Ph.D. of smicha.
Rabbi answers questions
"Those who have yoreh yoreh can only give answers to questions about such topics as Shabbat and kashrut," said Carmel, speaking to the paper via cell phone in Los Angeles. "Those with yadin yadin can give answers about all parts of the Shulchan Aruch."
That is why, if you if had a question about let’s say, why at the end of "Schindler’s List," did the Holocaust survivors who visited Oskar Schindler’s grave in Israel put stones on his headstone, you would be just fine asking your local rabbi.
But if you had a question about something more esoteric such as "Can you make a Pidyon Haben at night?" or "Is there a problem with bishul accum on pancakes?" you might be better served looking for an answer from someone who is yoreh yoreh certified.
Since Carmel founded the yeshiva with Rabbi Moshe Erenreich in 1987, the institution has ordained only about 100 rabbis. That is part a function of its curriculum, but it is also because only a very select crowd is even considered for admission.
The yeshiva admits only rabbis who have previous ordination, and it only admits those who have fulfilled their military obligations to the state of Israel. It accepts only five new students each year.
Carmel told the Standard via cell phone from Los Angeles that the program now has 35 rabbis studying in its bet midrash full time.
And once students are admitted, they must work hard, said Carmel. They are required to study in the yeshiva’s bet midrash every day from 8:30 a.m. until 6:15 at night, but besides that, they are required to spend time outside of the yeshiva studying with members of their community, giving back to Israeli society.
That’s because Carmel and Erenreich founded the institution to fill what they saw as a need in Israeli society that was not being met: the training of highly respected religious Zionist rabbis.
"Our idea was to teach a Zionist open mind," said Carmel who was in the States on a fund-raising trip. "This part of the Jewish nation did a lot of good things, but for many years, it was lacking in lay torah leadership.
Working with some of Israel’s top rabbis, Carmel and Erenreich turned the institution into one that is now a consultant to Israel’s Supreme Court and that has been commissioned to take over the central ordaining yeshivas of both Rome and South Africa.
It has also become a spot where rabbis from all over the world, such as Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood’s Ahavath Torah and Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Cong. Bnai Jeshurun in Teaneck, go to learn part-time to hone their craft.
"I was privileged to spend almost two weeks learning at Eretz Hemdah this past February. The intellectual stimulation and the holy environment were both invigorating and spiritually uplifting," Pruzansky told this newspaper via e-mail and through an intermediary. "Rav Erenreich and Rav Carmel, and their students, were exceptionally helpful. Eretz Hemdah, for all its other fine qualities, is an educational retreat for rabbanim that is indispensable for our continued spiritual growth."
It has also become a center for rabbis all across the world to ask the difficult questions that few are trained to answer.
For instance, on 9/11, a man was supposedly on the floor of the first World Trade Center tower that took the direct impact of an airplane. No trace of him was found, and his family had to know whether it should mourn and start to move on. Eretz Hemdah was consulted.
But over the past six years, the institution has become open to questions from all over the world, from everyone, all the time, as the Orthodox Union commissioned it to become the answer machine for its Ask the Rabbi program. In that time, it has answered some 11,000 questions from Jews of all walks of life on both its Website, www.eretzhemdah.org. and that of the OU, ou.org.
And, said Carmel, the questions have ranged from the simple to the truly bizarre. But, as he and the rabbis studying at Eretz Hemdah gather to answer them, they keep one thing in mind.
"There is no such thing as a strange question," he said. "There are only interesting questions for us, because Torah for us is a way of life. It doesn’t matter if it’s difficult or easy."