Shining Light in All the Dark Corners
A trailblazing educator is turning around lives of boys at risk throughout Israel.
When ax-wielding terrorists attacked Jews at prayer in a Jerusalem synagogue in November 2014, they left behind more than slaughtered bodies and blood-stained floors. The murders left in their wake five widows and many suddenly fatherless children. One of them was 17-year-old Avi Levine.
Avi had been particularly close to his father, Rabbi Calman Levine. The barbarity of his father’s murder left Avi with post-traumatic stress syndrome – and depression. While he had formerly been a good student, now Avi found no reason to get out of bed. Eventually someone brought him to a special yeshivah called Yeshivat Rashi, led by a Rabbi Chaikel Miletsky. Avi was told he could call Rabbi Miletsky at any time, night or day. He called him at 3 AM and they spoke for an hour, as if the rabbi had no morning obligations nor any commitments the next day that would distract him from giving his total attention to this boy.
“I didn’t want to face life,” recalls Avi, “and he showed me the positive side of life, why it was worth putting energy into living.” Avi has stayed at Yeshivat Rashi for three years. “I get up every morning and learn throughout the day. I have a smile on my face and a reason to live. I still think about my father, and I have questions. Rabbi Miletsky helps me, and the other boys help me; everybody helps me. We discuss what God wants from us, and the meaning of life.”
Rabbi Miletsky lavishes his unconditional love and individual attention on 400 boys who are in seven branches of Yeshivat Rashi throughout Israel. Although the yeshivah began 20 years ago, Rabbi Nachman Cohen, its manager, insists that it was not “founded.” Rather it grew organically. Chaikel Miletsky was a 32-year-old Torah scholar studying Torah in Jerusalem. Teenage boys who were having problems – in their families, in their schools, in the typical conflicts of adolescence – found Rabbi Miletsky like ants find sugar. In the evenings they would come to talk to him. They found more than a listening ear. They found a heart that expanded to encompass all their troubles and traumas, all their identity conflicts and questions. He started giving an informal class to 12 boys. They wanted more – more of his time and more of the love that he radiates.
Within the year, Rabbi Miletsky started a yeshivah. Because many of his boys lived on the street, he had to provide apartments for them to sleep and food. He had no funding, but somehow they managed, collecting day-old leftovers from the local bakery. Gradually as the demand grew, the yeshivah grew, and expanded to seven branches, attracting boys from all sectors of Israeli society.
One branch, located in Tifrach, an agricultural community in the south of Israel, caters to boys with especially hard backgrounds. They have horses, donkeys, and sheep for animal therapy, as well as a music room and a swimming pool that the boys themselves built.
One 18-year-old boy, who was in jail for a month and a half and on house arrest for nine months, joined the Tifrach branch of the yeshivah. He testifies, “When I was falling apart, Rabbi Miletsky gave me the hope to stand tall and believe in myself.”
Another boy, orphaned of his father, declares: “It’s my home. The rabbi is my father, my mother, and everything for me.”
Rabbi Miletsky’s Secret
What is the magnetic attraction that draws boys to Rabbi Miletsky? According to Rabbi Cohen, “After five minutes of speaking with him, a boy feels that Rabbi Miletsky really cares about him. That he has no other motives. That he just wants to help the boy with his problems, and to either bring him back to his home or, if that’s not possible, provide him with a home.”
Rabbi Miletsky meeting Rabbi Shteinman, of blessed memory
Toward that end, the yeshivah is open 365 days a year. No boy has to feel pressured to find a place to spend Shabbos or holidays. Like parents, the yeshivah pays for whatever individual boys need – shoes, dental work, even driving lessons to foster a sense of maturity and control in their lives.
Among the graduates of Yeshivat Rashi are rabbis, lawyers, social workers, real estate agents, psychologists, and teachers. Some 90% of the staff of 140 consists of former students of the yeshivah. As head teacher Rabbi Yosef Jacobson attests, “Rabbi Miletsky creates leaders.”
Rabbi Miletsky projects that most precious – and most rare – of qualities: unconditional love and acceptance. He sees through the troubled exteriors to the pure and holy soul within. “If a boy tells me terrible stories about himself – and we have some very, very bad stories here – it won’t change the way I look at him in the slightest. I still see his sweetness, his goodness. He just has a problem that he has to deal with.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Sinason, one of the head teachers, admits that when he first came to Yeshivat Rashi he looked at many of the students with critical eyes.
“But after being here a half a year,” he confesses, “I saw who they really are, that they are essentially good but have troubled behaviors due to the difficult circumstances they have been through. They are like a shining crystal dish that has been layered with dust, obscuring its true beauty. I love them because I see who they could be when they are in the right place. Now I tell my friends and relatives that everyone has to come to Yeshivat Rashi to learn to look at the world differently.”
Rabbi Miletsky talking to a student
The key to the yeshivah’s success is its unique pedagogical approach. Every student is assigned a mentor who is available to him 24/7, literally. Whenever a student has a question or problem, at any time of day or night he calls his mentor, usually himself a graduate of the yeshivah. While the yeshivah upholds the standards of a religious lifestyle, it also considers the normal inclinations of teenaged boys.
For example, if a boy calls his mentor at 3 AM and asks if he can have a beer, the mentor will discuss it with him. “Where are you? Who are you with? Who will drive you back to the yeshivah?” In 90% of cases, the mentor will approve. The point is that there are no dark corners, no lying, no duplicity, no fear of condemnation. It is 100% transparency that builds mutual trust. As one teacher remarked, “These boys are begging for discipline. But we don’t have one uniform rule for everyone. The mentor knows the boy, and the boy trusts the mentor.”
Second only to the students’ love for Rabbi Miletsky and the other teachers, they are propelled forward by their love for each other. In most educational institutions students have a natural affinity for some of their peers but not others. Personal likes and dislikes abound. At Yeshivat Rashi, however, the students take the unconditional love and acceptance they have received and extend it to the newcomers. “Here,” Rabbi Sinason says, “everyone is accepted and liked as you are.”
A unique feature at Yeshivat Rashi occurs 7-8 PM every night. The students sit in groups, without books or cellphones, and make conversation with each other. It’s the ultimate antidote for the social media generation’s lack of true relating.
“A Childhood with No Good Memories”
“Koby”, the fifth child in his family, was two years old when his mother was in a serious automobile accident. She became crippled and bedridden. His father couldn’t cope. At seven years of age, Koby was put into foster care. The foster parents were long on strictness and short on love. In high school, after failing out of two schools, Koby tried to escape his oppressive foster home by going to a dormitory school, but that too didn’t work. As Koby declares, “I had a childhood with no good memories.”
At 15, Koby quit school and went to work. He got a job as a delivery boy. He slept in the company’s storeroom. Every two days he went to the home of his boss’s parents in order to take a shower. Every couple weeks he went to his married sister in Haifa to do laundry.
When he was 17, someone brought him to Yeshivat Rashi. “At Rashi,” Koby, now 21, says, “my life changed completely. I was a person without friends at all. I didn’t know how to communicate. The yeshivah taught me how to behave with people; it taught me a new Judaism that I had never known. Without the yeshivah, I’d be a broken person. Rashi gave me a home and a family.”
Yeshivat Rashi’s success is its biggest problem. With space for only 400 boys, Rabbi Cohen gets nearly 300 queries per month. “My phone doesn’t stop ringing,” he laments. “We need to start more branches. There is so much the yeshiva cannot do because we simply don’t have the resources!”
It costs $300 per boy per month (after government funding) to accommodate a boy in Yeshivat Rashi. “It’s vital,” says Rabbi Josef Jacobson, “that every boy can find a physical and spiritual home. That’s why we’re launching this campaign. They are waiting for us to give them a home. Every person can help.”