An exclusive interview with Rabbi Chaim Aharon Kaufman, Chairman of the Vaad Hayeshivos
by Yossi Goldschmiedt
The roots of Vaad Hayeshivos
Before we get into the current responsibilities and challenges of the Vaad Hayeshivos, can you please share with our readers the history of its establishment? Most of us have only heard of it recently, in connection with the draft law.
The Vaad Hayeshivos was established nearly one hundred years ago by the Chofetz Chaim and Hagaon Harav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, zecher tzaddikim livrachah, in 5684 (1924), to help yeshivos and yeshivaleit. In those days, there was no government funding for yeshivos, and their survival was at risk. So the Vaad was established for this purpose, setting up a joint pool for amassing sums for the upkeep of yeshivos. The Chofetz Chaim initiated a set fee that all families were obligated to pay towards this fund. If not for this assistance, the yeshivos might have been forced to close, chas v’shalom.
At the time, Vaad Hayeshivos served the yeshivos in Poland and Lithuania. Obviously, with the outbreak of World War II, the activities of the Vaad ceased. Yet, it is well known that some yeshivos and many bachurim found shelter in Vilna at the beginning of the war, and were supported by the Vaad, under the leadership of Harav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski.
In Eretz Yisrael in 5701 (1941), barely a year into the war, Vaad Hayeshivos was re-established. The Gedolim in Eretz Yisrael at the time, led by the Gerrer Rebbe, the Imrei Emes; Harav Isser Zalmen Meltzer; Harav Zalman Sorotzkin; the Abir Yaakov of Husyitan; and Harav Yechiel Michel Tekachinsky, zecher tzaddikim livrachah, among others, saw the need to establish a system similar to the one in place in Europe, pre-War, in building a new vibrant center for Torah. Harav Zalmen Sorotzin, who had been an active force in the pre-War Vaad, took a leading role in its reestablishment in Eretz Yisrael, taking dozens of yeshivos under its wing at the time.
Ultimately, this was the beginning of the great olam haTorah that there is today, baruch Hashem, in Eretz Yisrael. As part of its assistance to the Torah world, the Vaad published Gemaros, Chumashim and other sefarim, which were made available to yeshivos at cost price.
The ORIGINS OF THE DRAFT DEFERMENT LAW
What was the role of the Vaad Hayeshivos in the original army service deferment?
In 5708 (1948), with the establishment of the State of Israel, the topic of army service came to the fore.
Through much siyatta diShmaya, an agreement allowing yeshivah students to be exempted from military service for as long as their sole occupation was Torah was signed into law in 1951. The new legal status was then named Toraso Umanuso.
The shtadlanus behind the scenes of this law included meetings between the government officials and Gedolei Yisrael. The chareidi askanim at the time, led by the Agudas Yisrael leader, Harav Yitzchok Meir Levin, zt”l, helped finalize the law.
At the time of the initial agreement, the Roshei Yeshivos stated clearly that the bachurim would be exempted from service for as long as they’d be learning. Not a blanket exemption, as many in the secular world believe. The Gedolim who worked this agreement out felt that this was the way to establish and build the olam haTorah.
The Vaad, which was led by the Gedolei Roshei Yeshivah of the time, was officially recognized as the authority with whom the government would deal to effect any further arrangements.
We must note that the Vaad Hayeshivos isn’t “for” or “against” the army; Vaad Hayeshivos’ raison d’etre has been, and is, to facilitate the unhindered Torah learning of anyone who wishes to do so. (Noteworthy is that Vaad Hayeshivos didn’t take a stance in the giyus banos saga, in adherence to its core mission, on behalf of yeshivos.)
The High Court
Now the High Court has struck down the draft law. What are they after? What is their goal?
The political aspect is not in my realm.
You might not know it, but this (the case against the deferment of the yeshivah bachurim) has been in and out of court for close to 50 years!
The Court keeps dragging it this way or that way. Adding a clause to the law, fine-tuning another aspect of it. But ultimately, they know, as we all know, that the basis of the law will remain, as it has been for close to 70 years.
We know that everything is min haShamayim. Maybe the Knesset will now pass a law that the High Court cannot overrule a democratically passed law. This isn’t the first case in which the court has overruled a law that passed in Knesset.
Were we thrilled with the current law that was struck down? No. Was it better than the one before it? Yes. Under the clear directives of Gedolei Yisrael, the leading Rebbes, Roshei Yeshivah, Moetzos Gedolei HaTorah, we had agreed to the current law. Everything we do or undersign is with their full backing. I have been called to numerous meetings of the Moetzes when the draft law was in question and I showed them the arrangements we worked on. I don’t consider myself more than a shaliach of the Gedolim, as well as of the tens of thousands of bachurim and avreichim.
We must also thank our loyal representatives in the Knesset who have done an excellent job on behalf of the Torah world.
There were several achievements that the MKs managed to add to the law, which were very useful for the bnei yeshivah (see section on deferment). Though we would like it to be better, we live with the understanding that we are in a galus, and we need to be realistic and work within the constraints of reality.
What was the current law, in brief?
The law passed in the Lapid-backed government, “The Equal Sharing of the Burden Bill,” [the new buzzword in Israel that accuses chareidim of shirking their burden] left every yeshivah bachur learning in yeshivah facing jail or sanctions, if the conscription numbers were not met. The number of bachurim who would be granted an exemption from army service was a grand total of 1,800. In addition, the State could impose financial penalties on the chareidi community if the enlistment quotas weren’t being met.
Fortunately, some amendments were made to this law, mainly that every bachur who wanted to pursue full-time learning was allowed to learn unhindered until 2020 and the penalties against yeshivah students were overturned. In 2020, the Defense Minister would determine how many chareidim should be drafted, based on the recommendation of army authorities. The Defense Minister can also determine how to proceed if the quotas aren’t met, or even to cancel the quota.
According to a report by the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in the first five decades after the establishment of the State of Israel, the exemptions were overseen solely by the Defense Minister.
In 1998, the High Court ruled that the Defense Minister was not authorized to exempt the yeshivah students, and said that any arrangement on army enlistment must be anchored in law and handled by the Knesset. Following that High Court ruling, the Knesset passed the Tal Law as a five-year interim law, under which yeshivah students were eligible to receive yearly deferments from army service. In 2006, the High Court upheld the law. A year later, the Knesset extended the Tal Law by five years, which was in effect until 2012, after which the Lapid government passed the “Equal Sharing of the Burden Law.”
Where do we go from here?
We are now in the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. [The interview was conducted during aseres yemei teshuvah.] We need to daven with much kavanah. That is the first and most important part, tefillah.
On the legal and political front, we leave that in the hands of the chareidi elected officials and askanim, who will work with the backing of Gedolei Yisrael, shlita, until they’ll come up with a law that is agreeable to all sides. Vaad Hayeshivos can assist the askanim regarding specific points to place the emphasis on, all from our practical experience.
One thing that I know: Every yeshivah bachur who wants to learn will be able to continue to learn. Don’t ask me how or what. That is and will be the reality. How this will work with the Knesset, with the High Court — I can’t tell you. … But that is what it has been and what it will be, b’ezras Hashem. They will come to some agreement, some compromise — and we will continue to do ours.
We have been promised that “kol kli yotzer alayich lo yitzlach — any tool that is created against You will not succeed” (Yeshayahu 54:17).
If, as you said, this case has been in and out of the court for so many years, how did we think that this law would survive the legal challenge?
I can tell you that when we worked on this latest draft law, we sat with many topnotch legal experts, both frum and otherwise. They worked on a text that should be legally binding and should cover all aspects. They were all surprised when the High Court struck it down.
Being that the High Court doesn’t rule on many or most of the appeals that come before them, it was hoped that the court would be reluctant to strike down such a fundamental Knesset law.
And if a new law is passed in the current Knesset with the chareidi parties in the coalition, how can we know it won’t be overturned by a new government?
There are several ideas being discussed. If the chareidi parties manage to pull off a new law that supersedes the power of the court, once that is law it remains law.
What can happen remains, ultimately, in His Hands. But we are promised that “ki lo sishakach mipi zaro — for it [the Torah] will not be forgotten from the mouths of their children” (Devarim 31:21).
There have been many governments, defense ministers, judges, coalitions, etc. that have come and gone over the last 70 years. And the same way that the yeshivah bachurim have continued to learn over the years until now, they will continue, b’ezras Hashem.
What should bnei yeshivah do in the meantime?
Every yeshivah bachur should make sure he does what he is supposed to do, meaning, he registers on time, and he brings his annual deferment on time.
What is the procedure of the deferment?
As it has been for the last nearly seven decades, from when a bachur is 16-17, he goes for his first enrollment with the IDF. And from then on, all he needs to do is [present] an annual deferment. That’s it.
At the age of 24, it is all over. Simple as that. In the past, one would have to continue bringing a deferment until the age of 40.
Actually, we were able to implement new conditions with meaningful benefits to the yeshivah bachurim in the last amendment to the law. For example, bachurim are allowed to come in groups to the draft offices, something unheard of in the past. Instead of a lengthy one-on-one interview with each bachur, it is now a group session, and we even arranged that a Mashgiach from the yeshivah is allowed in with the bachurim. In addition, there are some days designated only for bachurim, to provide a proper environment, and the interviewer is a male soldier.
These important accommodations were added at the request of Vaad Hayeshivos in accordance with the Rebbes and Roshei Yeshivah, shlita, members of the Moetzos Gedolei HaTorah.
Another thing that we have arranged in recent days is that the bachurim no longer need to go to the recruiting offices for interviews at all; they just fill out the questionnaires in their yeshivos, submit the forms to the Vaad Hayeshivos and we forward them to the IDF. They only need to turn up and sign the forms and go back to the Gemaros.
And all these achievements will be lost if and when a new law is enacted?
First of all, as long as the law is still law — until the end of the year — everything stays the same.
Secondly, as we hope the arrangements will stay the same, it is critical to turn up during this year when one is called to present his deferment.
What happens if a bachur gets into trouble? What is there to do?
There are those who get into legal trouble for various reasons. Some forget to report on their appointed days, or misplace their forms, or whatever it may be. We in Vaad Hayeshivos are here for every bachur. But as always, stay on top of things and if you encounter any problem, better deal with it earlier than wait for it to build up, as these things get more complicated the longer one waits.
I can say with certainty that no bachur who followed the rules was arrested. There may be cases when technical glitches occured and a bachur was arrested. These things happened in the past and may still happen, but even in those cases, the bachurim were released very quickly, as soon as matters were cleared up.
There is a feeling that the IDF is “out to get the yeshivah bachurim” more than ever before. Is that so?
It may seem so, but it isn’t that they’re out to get us, and it is part of our responsibility to the public to dispel that misconception. It’s the computerized system that brings the facts and figures to the IDF in a more synchronized manner. For example, until several years ago, when the IDF wanted to know if a bachur overstayed his allowed overseas trip, they would have to get the names and dates from the airport authorities — and these things took time and weren’t always noticed. Today, with all the technological advances, it is not only the IDF, it is not only the chareidim; it’s the whole world. So, no, we can’t say they’re looking [especially] for us. But yes, it is also us.
Hishtadlus from Overseas
In light of the recent High Court ruling, is there anything that the concerned community overseas can or should be doing?
Tefillos are effective from wherever one is. That is something that always helps.
Another point I’d like to stress. Klal Yisrael always stands in solidarity with each other no matter where we are. The solidarity needed is the backing of the Vaad Hayeshivos. We do nothing without first conferring with the Gedolim. The olam haTorah and all it contains is one of the foremost topic on the tables of all the Gedolim.
Not everyone knows how much time and effort they dedicate to this. This isn’t just dealing with the current issues, it is the future of ALL of Klal Yisrael that is on the table. All that we have today in communal Yiddishkeit is from the koach of the yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael, and it is also the foundation for future generations.
To see the Roshei Yeshivah from all sectors of the community, Litvishe, Chassidishe, Sefardi, as well as the Moatzos Gedolei HaTorah; to see the gravity they attach to these matters, how much time they invest to listen to all the various issues, to come to a decision. This is not something that happens by itself. And the proof of their success is that for 70 years the current system has worked, the bachurim report once a year and continue to dedicate themselves to Torah. This is how it has been and will b’ezras Hashem continue to be.
And for those who do want to assist?
If there is any way that people overseas can help, it is with several programs we run.
For example, one of the serious issues we have to deal with is with bachurim who are baalei teshuvah. That is a very difficult matter, as in some cases they have begun their enrollment in the army and then, midway, they back out and want to move to learn in yeshivah. There are hundreds of these cases — baruch Hashem — and there are dozens of yeshivos for them across Eretz Yisrael. In these cases, each bachur and each circumstance needs different representation with the various government offices.
A recent program that we established is for at-risk bachurim. It provides mentors to help them, encourage them, learn with them and keep them in the fold.
And all this obviously isn’t for free. But we will continue to do it. This is really supporting and upkeeping the Torah in Klal Yisrael.
So if there are those overseas who want to help and support the battle of the giyus, perhaps this is the real battle, and not dealing with futile propaganda.
Ultimately, Eretz Yisrael has been and will be the biggest makom Torah. Thousands of bachurim from all over the world come every year from overseas to learn here. Ki miTzion teitzei Torah.
A final word?
We are now at the beginning of the new year, 5778. It is told that Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, once received a calendar, and flicking through it, he saw that on the last page, 29 Elul of the next year, it said “Tichleh shanah v’killelosehah, may it finish the year and its curses, tachel shanah u’birchosehah, may the new year and its blessings begin.” He asked how does the printer already know now that this coming year will be that bad?
Yes, we can say on this year tichleh shanah v’killelosehah, and may we be zocheh to tachel shanah u’birchosehah, and that it shouldn’t be, chalilah, tichleh shanah v’killelosehah at the end of the year. May it be a good year for all of Klal Yisrael.
(Weekly edition News section pages 10-15)