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A yeshiva in the Free State

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The village of Oranjeville in the Free State boasts a healthy ratio of two churches to two bars. It has a tarred road, with more potholes than actual road, that runs through its centre where there is a general dealer and an estate agent. There is one traffic light to manage the traffic over a single-lane bridge, but it hasn’t worked for as long as anyone is able to remember. It also has a library that cost way more than it should have, and which might not actually house any books.

Oranjeville was typical of peaceful but neglected “towns” in the area, and sits on the edge of the Vaal. That was until it became home to the only yeshiva in the Free State. Now, if one drives down the sand road, the hum of learning and prayer will be heard around the small yeshiva complex.

The yeshiva is the brainchild of Rabbi Raff of the Maharsha community in Johannesburg. Troubled by the closure of shuls and places of learning, and aware of many young boys who would ordinarily have gone abroad to continue their studies but weren’t now able to do so, he sought a creative solution – to construct a COVID-19 safe “bubble” far away enough to remain medically secure, where the boys could continue with their education. On the advice of medical experts, the students and two rabbinic families went into self-isolation before being cleared to be able join the yeshiva.

The Raff family have had a connection to Oranjeville for many years, making it a natural choice. It was there that an old, dilapidated property was identified, and renovation began at break-neck speed. The goal was to be able to be open by the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul, which is one month before Rosh Hashanah. The time frame was short, and the work significant. There was also the matter of the IT infrastructure that would be critical to the success of a place as remote as this.

While the 20-something boys remained in isolation, the rebuild went ahead, and the yeshiva was able to open as anticipated. Two rabbinic families also moved to the village to manage not only the curriculum, but also the small matter of food supplies and everything else that is required. The size of the property (with ample room for soccer), the proximity to the Vaal, and the fresh air all contributes to the appeal.

According to Rabbi Raff, “While the idea of developing a property in ‘Oville’ as a safe, out-of-the-way location for school camps and spiritual getaways has been simmering for many years, with boys unable to return to their yeshivas in eretz Yisroel, a need was keenly brought to the fore.”

An unintended consequence of the pandemic has been to make the religious world more comfortable with the use of technology. Whereas many environments might have chafed against the use of the internet, COVID-19 has shown its tremendous advantages for the field of education. What this means for the Oranjeville yeshiva is that it has access to some of the world’s most prominent rabbonim and teachers, many of whom have already undertaken to give shiurim to the students.

Says Rabbi Raff, “With the ‘Zoom boom’, we realised that these boys could have access to roshei yeshivos and magidei shiur right here in the heart of the Free State. Shiurim from leaders in Torah learning have been scheduled weekly as part of the programme.”

More than 20 students have already taken advantage of the facility. It’s designed for boys with a high level of learning and observance.

With the launch of the yeshiva in the Free State, Rabbi Raff has redefined the concept of remote learning. The “bubble” might have started off as a safe refuge from the pandemic, but it’s easy to imagine that even once this has passed, it will have appeal and relevance to many.

Where some consider remote learning to be a Zoom class at home, for attendees of the Oranjeville yeshiva, remote learning means real connection to a world of Torah study. That and a two-hour journey to the banks of the Vaal, just over a bridge, with a traffic light no one can remember working.

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