Elite religious centre steeped in the history of Judaism

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Founded in 1924 by Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of what was still Palestine, the Mercaz Harav yeshiva – or seminary – was always intended to be a centre of religious study based strictly on the Torah, part of the Hebrew Bible on which the Jewish faith is based.

But the flagship seminary, situated in the Kiryat Moshe region of the largely Jewish west Jerusalem, was also set up as a breeding ground for loyalists to the state of Israel, and – with a teaching emphasis on the Jewish people's claim to the land of Israel – it is associated with the controversial settler movement in the West Bank.

The Mercaz Harav seminary's website says its founding purpose was "to raise up and educate scholars and leaders in Israel, filled with a deep love of their fellow Jew, and imbued with the love of the Torah and the love of the Land of Israel."

A number of graduates of the seminary serve as judges and rabbis in cities and settlements across Israel, as well as within the corps of the defence forces.

Today, with about 500 students – boys and girls – in the yeshiva, and 200 in the kollel, for graduate students, Mercaz Harav is one of the largest institutions of its type in Israel. Its ethos is that of a religious camp, and it is run by former pupils of the yeshiva or those who specifically seek spirituality from the centre. Studies include those of Jewish law and the history of Jewish thought and scholarship.

As with other Orthodox students, pupils at the yeshiva are able to avoid the otherwise blanket military conscription that is still in force across Israel, though some perform a reduced stint in the Israeli Defence Forces in their twenties. In 1964 a high school was founded nearby which has also become part of the religious centre.

The seminary's instructors were, until his death in 2007, led by Harav Avraham Shapiro, another former chief rabbi of Israel, and credited as being one of the leading Torah scholars of his generation. Its website says: "Mercaz Harav yeshiva is the focal point of a young generation aspiring to walk in the Way of God and His Torah, and drawn to the vision of Harav Kook." It adds that students "devote themselves to an intensive course of study designed to equip them with the high qualifications necessary to take their places as rabbis and teachers in Israel".

Last night, David Simchon, the head of the seminary, said the students had been preparing a celebration for the new month of Adar in the Jewish calendar, including the holiday of Purim, which celebrates deliverance from annihilation. "We were planning to have a Purim party here tonight and instead we had a massacre," he said.

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