By: Josh Blicker  | 

Manny Dahari: The Most Interesting Student in YU

Meet Manny Dahari, a Yeshiva University junior majoring in marketing and minoring in political science. At first glance, his stylish haircut, dark skin, and American accent make him appear no different than a North American university student with Sephardic ancestry. But having recently had the pleasure of interviewing Manny, I can confidently assert that his childhood strongly contrasts with the privileged upbringing of most of his North American peers. Underneath his conventional exterior lies a narrative that renders him one of the most interesting and courageous students at YU.

Born in Raida, a village near the capital of Yemen, Dahari is the fourth of eight children. He describes the Jewish community in Yemen as close-knit and extremely devout—very few Yemenite Jews are irreligious. Almost all male members of the Yemenite Jewish community wear kippahs and keep their sidelocks unshorn, which they refer to as a siman, a sign to remind them of their heritage and unique value system. Most saliently, their simanim and head coverings differentiate them from the Arabs indigenous to Yemen, and render them easy targets for anti-semitism. Unlike most adults who have warm memories of their childhood, Dahari remembers the horrors of the vitriolic anti-semitism that he experienced at a young age. He recalls Arab children preparing rocks and other make-shift weapons to throw at him and his siblings as they walked to school.

Despite the size of the Jewish community in Yemen, all of the Jewish children attend an orthodox elementary school funded by Satmar Chassidim. The curriculum places a large emphasis on the rigorous study of classical Judaic texts—like Talmud and Chumash—and not on secular studies. Upon graduating elementary school, Yemenite Jewish males generally attend yeshiva for one to two years, shortly after which they go to work, get married, and start families; Jewish females start working and usually get married earlier than their male counterparts.

But around the time of his bar-mitzvah, Dahari’s life-course took an unconventional turn when the Satmar representative of Yemen gave Dahari the opportunity of a lifetime: to attend yeshiva in the United States for two years. Dahari’s father was overjoyed that his son would be the first of his family to leave Yemen in many generations, and he therefore encouraged Manny to take the leap of faith. So shortly after his bar-mitzvah, an excited Manny boarded a plane—an infrequent occurrence among Yeminite citizens—and left his family and his war stricken home country behind.

Several hours later, clad in his large kippah and long side locks, Dahari arrived in New York where he stayed briefly with his cousins in Lakewood, New Jersey before starting yeshiva in Williamsburg. Lakewood is one of the largest ultra-orthodox communities in the U.S, and Dahari felt comfortable there since the culture of Lakewood was not too different from his community in Yemen. Dahari’s hospitable cousins gave him a sense of comfort and stability, but, unfortunately, these feelings did not carry over into his time in Yeshiva.

After leaving Lakewood, Dahari went to Williamsburg where he attended a Satmar yeshiva. The languages of instruction were Yiddish and English, two languages which Dahari barely spoke. He also recalls that aside from side locks, large kippahs, and a distantly shared heritage, he and his Satmar peers had few cultural similarities. He was the only student in the yeshiva with dark skin. He was assigned a mentor, a Satmar adult, to help him during his time in the United States, but this mentor did not speak his mother tongue, making communication difficult and jeopardizing their relationship.

During his time at the Satmar yeshiva, Dahari experienced a culture that was vastly different from the one in which he was raised—the Satmar yeshiva required him to spend the majority of his time in a cloistered study hall, and he was not permitted to leave the yeshiva without wearing a hasidic hat and jacket. He also faced social ostracization by his peers who attended the yeshiva. After six months of social difficulties and culture clashes, Dahari decided to leave the yeshiva.

When his mentor heard of this decision, he gave Dahari an ultimatum: return to Yemen and embarrass his family, or remain in the U.S. but live independently. Dahari chose the latter option. Having grown up in an ultra-orthodox community, Dahari’s natural course of action was to continue his Jewish education at a different yeshiva in the U.S. So he promptly switched to another Chassidic yeshiva, where he studied for another six months. He then attended several non-Chassidish yeshivas, including one in upstate New York. At each yeshiva he attended, he did not engage in secular studies. During his several year stint in yeshiva, he stayed in various dormitories and worked on Fridays and Sundays in order to earn spending money and to purchase clothing (his tuition was covered by various yeshiva scholarship funds). During this period, though he primarily studied Hebraic texts, his English language skills rapidly improved.

But when he turned 18, he decided to earn a high school education and to leave the world of full-time Torah learning. Dahari stated that the impetus for his decision was his desire to understand the world in which he lived and to not become a stereotypical Yemenite teenager with little worldly knowledge. A series of complex events resulted in his travelling to Chicago where he was introduced to an orthodox family which took him under their wing for an extended period of time.

His decision was bold, especially given that he had not received any secular education since he left Yemen when he was thirteen. However, with support from the family in Chicago and hours of diligent study, Manny completed several grades of high school in about four months. He then attended a yeshiva high school in Indianapolis, a short drive from the family in Chicago, where he graduated when he was 19. Upon graduating high school, he attended Oakton Community College in Chicago, where he earned a B.A. in Liberal Arts. He then applied to several universities, including Yeshiva University.

However, after having lived in nine different cities in 9 years, Dahari sought stability. He thus decided to attend Loyola College in Skokie in September 2014, which enabled him to stay near the aforementioned family. During his first semester at Loyola College, Dahari studied Biology with the intent of going to medical school. It was during this time that he also decided to try and help his siblings leave Yemen. Although he achieved academic success, Dahari disliked the lack of Jewish culture on campus—he felt that something was missing.

But during his second semester, he started to invest more time into helping his siblings escape Yemen—his parents needed more time to prepare themselves financially before leaving. Toward the beginning of the semester, he came in contact with the Jewish Agency, an Israeli organization that specializes in helping Middle-Eastern Jews emigrate to Israel, and then offered to help Dahari’s siblings leave Yemen and come to Israel. Dahari decided to suspend his studies at the university to devote more time to working on helping his siblings escape. As soon as he withdrew from his classes, he received a call from the Jewish Agency: they were able to arrange for his siblings to emigrate to Israel via Jordan.

Shortly thereafter, Dahari boarded a plane where he planned to meet his siblings an hour after his flight landed. After having been in Jordan for 24 hours, his siblings’ flight did not arrive. Dahari was notified by the Jewish Agency that the plane which was supposed to transport his siblings had not arrived in Yemen. As Yemen is constantly in a state of war, commercial airlines seldom travel there.

A disappointed Dahari continued to Israel where he worked with the Jewish agency from May of 2015 until August. Although he planned on returning to Loyola College, he decided to re-apply to YU to which he had been previously accepted. He was re-accepted and decided to attend YU a week before the Fall 2015 semester began.

Dahari describes YU as a difficult but worthwhile adjustment. At yeshiva, Dahari feels that the vibrant Jewish community allows him to participate in student life in many ways that he could not at Loyola college: he is currently involved in a number of student clubs and activities.

This past October, Manny received a call from the Jewish Agency. They were able to help some of his siblings escape. That night, Manny flew to Jordan, where he planned on meeting his siblings an hour after landing—he was not permitted to tell anyone where he was going. But the plane did not arrive, for the runway in Yemen had been bombed. Fortunately, his siblings were re-routed. Several nerve-racking hours later, Dahari’s siblings arrived. It was the first time that Manny had seen these siblings since he had left Yemen. They then traveled together to Israel. Unfortunately, their reunion was short lived. Manny only spent two days with his siblings before returning to YU.

Although he had difficulty explaining his absences to his professors, Dahari successfully completed the term. A few weeks ago, Dahari and the Jewish Agency were able to help his parents and younger siblings escape Yemen. Like their children who had left before them, there were a number of events that complicated Manny’s parents’ travel plans; a war broke out, preventing them from leaving on time. They had to postpone their flight for several days, and they could not leave the safety of a hotel near the airport where they subsisted on a limited supply of fruits and vegetables. Finally, after enduring a great amount of physical and emotional turmoil, the remaining Daharis finally emigrated to Israel. The Daharis were also able to bring an ancient Torah scroll that they have had in the family for over 600 years.

Although Dahari successfully adjusted to life in the U.S., it was an arduous process, especially as he learned of what his family and the Jewish community of Yemen had to endure. In 2008, Dahari’s rabbi and mentor was shot in front of his house. And in 2011, Dahari’s cousin was kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam, and married to an Islamic man. His other cousins were physically threatened: their backyard was bombed. In 2011, Dahari’s sister’s father-in-law was stabbed to death.

But fortunately, Dahari’s entire immediate family has successfully left Yemen. Manny Dahari’s story is nothing short of inspiring. On April 16th, Manny will travel to Israel where he will spend Passover with his family. Looking back on the events that occurred over the last 10 years, this Pesach will serve as a true night of freedom for the entire Dahari family.