TEL AVIV (Oct. 10)
Ofri Bar-Am, 19, folds her legs underneath her on a library couch and peers closely at a photocopy of the biblical passage describing the oldest recorded case of sibling rivalry in history, Cain and Abel. A student at the first secular yeshiva in Israel, Bar-Am underlines phrases, scribbles notations and promptly dives into a psychological and theological discussion with her study partners about the story’s layered meanings and relevance.
“Cain’s whole purpose seems to be trying to please God, and when that doesn’t happen he breaks down and kills his brother,” she said. Pointing out a puzzling phrase she asks, “What does it mean? How did this happen?”
Bar-Am is part of an incoming class of 30 young, non-religious Israelis who, like her, are combining study at the secular yeshiva with army service. A total of 150 students are attending classes here.
The Secular Yeshiva of Tel Aviv, as it’s called, has students divide their time between studying Jewish texts and volunteering in economically disadvantaged areas of south Tel Aviv where the yeshiva is located. There they do informal education projects with local elementary school students and after-school programming for them.
The goal is to give young, secular Israelis an education that will show them that they too have a rich culture to tap into and explore. Like many Israelis, young and old, those that come to the yeshiva know little about Judaism and feel alienated from religion, which they view as the domain of the fervently Orthodox.
There’s no expectation or even intention for religious observance to follow.
Instead, the yeshiva’s founders hope students will gain an appreciation for religious pluralism and a desire to fuse their newfound knowledge of Judaism with work for social justice and human rights.
The yeshiva is a project of BINA, The Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, sponsored by the United Kibbutz Movement. The organization hopes to strengthen pluralism and democracy in Israel by focusing on the humanistic aspects of Judaism.
“One of reasons for the secular yeshiva is to counter the mindset of the opposition to Judaism as only a religious concept. We are here to give a different answer,” said Tal Shaked, 33, a former lawyer who serves as yeshiva head.
“I want to see people who are more socially minded, so the study is based not just on analyzing texts but seeing how these ideas can be applied as individuals and as members of Israeli society,” she said.
About half of the 30 students currently studying ahead of their army service pay tuition and follow the yeshiva model of studying from early morning until late at night, studying in pairs known as chevrutas.
The other half combine their yeshiva studying and volunteering with odd jobs to support themselves.
Organizers hope to win official recognition from the government as a combined yeshiva-army program, a type that exists in the modern Orthodox community and receives state funding.
Another group of post-army students also combines study with work and, like the others, lives in communal apartments in the Shapira and Kiryat Shalom neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.
Eventually the plan is to be able to accommodate some 500 students. There are teachers from the three main streams of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.
The yeshiva receives funding from the New Israel Fund, the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal and the Jewish Federations of Los Angeles and New York City. It reflects a trend in recent years of secular Jewish Israelis seeking a stronger connection to a heritage muted by the founders of the state, who preferred to detach Judaism from Zionism.
Several centers have opened in Israel that have begun to introduce Jewish text study to a secular audience. This yeshiva, however, is the first seminary of its kind in Israel.
“I think Israeli society has paid a price for Zionism’s attempts to cut out religion. It has created an identity crisis,” said Ariel Nitzan, 18, from Kibbutz Lotan, who will be doing a half-year of work-study at the yeshiva before joining a combat unit in the army, then returning for a period to the yeshiva.
“I feel like I’m also doing something for national security, but from a different point of view,” Nitzan said. “I’m dealing with the question of Jewish identity and contributing to social justice on some level.”
Dana Ben-Asher, 19, said she was always interested in Jewish topics but on Kibbutz Dorot, where she grew up, the focus was on socialist Zionism, as it is at most secular kibbutzim.
“We would build a sukkah and would ask why, and all the answers would be about pioneers and the importance of being Israeli,” she said.
The yeshiva students complain that in high school they were taught the Bible as a dry, impersonal subject.
Avigail Graetz, 30, a playwright and teacher who gives a course at the yeshiva on sibling relationships in the Bible, grew up in Israel’s small Conservative movement.
“They don’t even notice how they peel the layers back,” she said of her students’ astute analyses in her course.
If you start discussing the Bible per se, you can turn them off, she said — “but when you talk about siblings in general they bring themselves into the text, and it’s beautiful. Their interpretations, their broad conceptions are so enriching.”
Graetz said the approach to study is not about “right or wrong. We aren’t doing it for halachah, and we don’t come from a place of ‘God knows better.’ “
Over Yom Kippur, dozens of yeshiva students and their friends gathered at the community center in Tel Aviv that is the yeshiva’s temporary home. There they listened to commentaries and did group study and personal reflection.
Ben-Asher said it was the first time she had marked Yom Kippur in any kind of meaningful way.
Over Sukkot, Ben-Asher and her classmates are building a sukkah in the middle of a park in the neighborhood where they’re living and volunteering, and hope locals will come to visit.
Efrat Kolenberg, 23, from Haifa, is among those in the yeshiva doing work-study after the army.
“I want to live a life of meaning and to be part of a community,” she said, sitting at a picnic table outside of the yeshiva/community center. “Jewish texts interest me because they deal with our lives. Through them I can think about myself and my society, and ask questions I wouldn’t otherwise be asking about my culture.”