M

ore than two decades ago, I had a good friend who was running an institution for teenage boys who were ill suited to the mainstream yeshivos ketanos and required a very different curriculum. Providing what they needed was expensive, and usually beyond the capacity of the parents to cover. As a consequence, the institution always teetered on the brink of closing.

Yet for years he kept it going, more often than not with amazing siyata d’Shmaya arriving at five minutes to midnight. Every leil Shabbos, I would inquire after davening about his miracle story of the week. He rarely disappointed. It was a great deal for both of us: I entered Shabbos uplifted and with a good story to tell at the Shabbos table, and he had someone with whom to share his weekly adventures.

My friend long ago entered the more staid world of running an American seminary, and I’ve been on the lookout for another ready source of feel-good stories. Of late a young avreich who lives nearby has stepped into the breach. Rabbi Moshe Shachor directs the men’s side of Kesher Yehudi’s program for pre-army academies, and is a veritable font of my favorite kind of story — those of Jews being changed by exposure to Torah.

The program, which will include 12 mechinot, with approximately 600 members this coming year, consists of monthly meetings at the mechinah with lectures and discussion sessions, special gatherings throughout the year connected to the Jewish holidays, and at least one shabbaton in a chareidi neighborhood. Each mechinah participant has a chareidi partner with whom they learn in person at the monthly meetings and are in regular contact by phone. In most cases, that relationship continues throughout the mechinah participant’s army service.

About four or five months ago, Mechinat Tavor, located in Nazaret Ilit, which will be joining the Kesher Yehudi program this coming year, called Reb Moshe and asked him to set up a sample program while they were on a visit to Jerusalem. Reb Moshe put together a few pages of Torah material, and invited a number of avreichim who have been involved with the program to join him for an hour and a half of learning.

End of the story. Or so it seemed, until a couple of months ago, when Rabbi Shachor received a call from one of the young avreichim who had learned with the group. A young man named Ido had called the avreich, who had been his chavrusa, to say that he had time between the end of his pre-induction studies and being drafted, and he wanted to learn with him.

The next day, Ido came toJerusalemand learned with his chavrusa, who then brought him to meet Rabbi Shachor at Aish HaTorah, where he was learning in a kiruv-oriented kollel. Ido told Reb Moshe that he wanted to learn another day, and the latter invited him to stay overnight at his home.

The next day, Ido accompanied Reb Moshe to tefillah and asked to put on his tefillin. They spent morning seder learning the beginning of Perek Merubah, and in the afternoon Ido attended some of the Essentials classes at Aish HaTorah.

Another avreich, who had participated in the first learning session with the young Jews from Mechinat Tavor, recognized Ido and asked him to convey greetings to his chavrusa from that session, Nevo. The next day Nevo excitedly called his chavrusa from that one-time learning session months earlier. He chattered on about how much Ido had enjoyed his two days inJerusalem.

The chavrusa replied, “Fine, but what about you, Nevo?” Nevo told him that he lived far fromJerusalem, in a settlement close to Netanya. It just so happened that Nevo’s chavrusa was then in Netanya to visit his in-laws for Shabbos. Nevo drove over immediately to learn before Shabbos for an hour and a half.

Nevo’s reaction to receiving derishas shalom from an avreich he had met only once months before provides an important lesson for each of us. Every friendly gesture, every signal that we care about our fellow Jew, even if he or she is not yet shomer Shabbos, is eagerly awaited and the response will often be far greater than we could possibly anticipate.

Now back to Ido. Ido has been in ongoing contact with Rabbi Shachor. In one conversation, he mentioned that he has started to regularly attend a shiur in Ramat Hasharon, not far from his home.

And he is eager to share his newfound excitement about learning Torah with as many of his friends as possible. Over the summer vacation, he created a week-long seminar for fellow graduates of his pre-army academy who are currently awaiting induction. There were sessions on Kuzari, Chassidus, and Aggadata. Ido invited Rabbi Shachor to give one of the lectures, and the latter spoke for two and a half hours on the Maharal’s understanding of the mitzvah of loving our fellow Jew.

Now Ido and Reb Moshe are busy preparing a three-day learning seminar at Aish HaTorah on the Chagim for other graduates of the pre-induction academies who still have not received their call-up notices.

Rabbi Shachor has been involved for years in the Kesher Yehudi program and understood its power. But even he could never have imagined how just one short learning session could trigger such changes in one young Jew. I eagerly await an update on Ido’s progress, and that of others in the program, this coming Shabbos.

 

HAIL MY ALMA MATER

I found my chest swelling with pride recently over the letter sent by my alma mater, the Universityof Chicago, to all incoming freshman. The letter stated that the University’s commitment to academic freedom means that “we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

With that clear statement, the University of Chicagobecame the first elite American university to make clear that it will have no part in the current assault on freedom of thought and expression on university campuses.

Dean of Students John (Jay) Ellison’s letter reiterated the university’s long-standing positions. The 1967 Kalven report, authored by First Amendment scholar Harry Kalven, opposed the university taking positions on the major social issues of the day. For the university to take a collective position, Kalven wrote, would have the inevitable effect of “inhibiting the full freedom of dissent on which it thrives.”

Today, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, founder of the heterodoxacademy.com, points out, the only kind of diversity that has few advocates on campuses is ideological diversity. Leading humanities and social science departments are “conservative-free zones.” But the Kalven Committee, comprised of distinguished academics, including one Nobel Prize winner, asserted, “A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community….[I]t is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.”

In 2014, after a number of college presidents nationwide had warned staff to be sensitive to “microaggressions,” another University of Chicago Committee on Freedom of Expression was convened under the leadership of former law school dean and university provost Geoffrey Stone. The Stone Report quoted approvingly former University of Chicago President Hanna Holborn Gray’s observation that “education is not intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.”

“Although the University greatly values civility,” Stone wrote, “civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable they may be to some members of our community.”

I have no doubt that the University of Chicago’s decision to set itself apart from other elite institutions was not only wise but smart, and will serve to attract to Chicago an even larger slice of top high school students who enter college to have their horizons expanded rather than their every thought confirmed. Not only students of a conservative bent, but also political liberals — as was Harry Kalven and is Geoffrey Stone — who do not share the progressive penchant for declaring every “debate closed” and delegitimizing every view but their own.

A 2015 survey found that 80 percent of college students think “freedom of speech should either be less limited on college campuses or there should be no difference compared to society at large,” and about 50 percent say they feel “unsafe” expressing unpopular opinions. But the radical students and the former radicals on the faculty and in the administration, raised on Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, are running the asylum.

Over the last 40 years, I doubt if I have set foot on the Hyde Park campus that was once home more than a handful of times. But the letter brought me back to one of the most formative periods of my life. Though the college of my day was far from the Great Books curriculum of the Hutchens college at which my father and mother met at 17 and 15, respectively, something of the respect for the Western Canon still remained. Western Civilization remained a required course for all students. The conviction that the great minds of the past still had something to say to modern man, and that ancient wisdom should not be lightly discarded, certainly made it easier for me to search my own tradition with an open mind.

Whenever we passed the campus as kids, my mother would remark that there are people there who spend their entire lives in study. And my brothers and I would all laugh at the thought of staying in school for life. But the joke is on us: Three of my brothers and I are still involved in daily study of ancient texts.

Even for the Jew I have become, the University of Chicago’s stance remains relevant. The Torah is not politically correct, and Torah Jews are a small and increasingly vulnerable minority. On many campuses today, it is easy to imagine bans on reading Vayikra. Unless we want Jewish students to have to become Marranos in the higher echelons of academia, we should pray that more universities follow the University of Chicago’s lead.