About a dozen members of the local Jewish community, mostly Israelis from secular backgrounds, met in a private home on the Upper West Side a month before Passover last year as part of a new Jewish educational program’s inaugural event.
The theme of the evening, organized by the Midrasha in Manhattan organization, was Israeli and Jewish identity in the diaspora. One leader of the session, Israeli-born novelist Ruby Namdar, discussed the Talmudic declaration that the Jewish slaves in ancient Egypt merited to be freed because they had not changed their Jewish language, their distinctive style of dress or their Jewish names.
At the end of the program, one of the evening’s students, a 60ish secular woman from Israel who had moved to the United States four decades earlier and raised two children who had intermarried, told Temima Shulman, founder of the Midrasha in Manhattan, that simply speaking Hebrew at home had not proved sufficient to ensure her children’s Jewish identity. “I need a lot more more content,” some knowledge about Jewish culture and traditions, she told Shulman.
Which is why, Shulman said, she began her Midrasha program.
Midrasha (Hebrew for a place of advanced Jewish learning, in Israel often identifying a program designed for women) is an independent, nondenominational educational program aimed at the estimated 150,000 Israelis who live in the New York area. Its monthly discussion sessions, conducted in Hebrew, are based at various JCCs and synagogues in Manhattan, though a recent program conducted in English on “Women’s Advancement in the Diaspora and Israel,” co-sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, took place at a Midtown WeWorks shared workspace.
Some 20 people, a mixture of men and women, Sabras and Jews born in the U.S., attended that program.
Midrasha is a reflection of Shulman, a journalist and veteran teacher who was born in Jerusalem, lived there until she came to the U.S. more than three decades ago, lives in the largely black-hat Orthodox community of Passaic, N.J., and speaks fluent Hebrew.
All her Midrasha programs, usually centered around Jewish-identity themes connected with upcoming Jewish holidays, feature some study of classical Jewish sources.
“It’s the modern concept of a beit midrash,” a standard, all-male yeshiva study hall, Shulman said.
Though Shulman is Orthodox, Midrasha, which serves kosher food at its programs and “operates fully within halacha,” is not affiliated with any denomination of Judaism. Its programs are coed, an anomaly in Orthodox circles that traditionally frown on mixed-gender learning activities. Its activities have featured prominent participants like Israeli educator Ruth Calderon, a former Knesset member; Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, founder of LabShul; and Namdar, none of them Orthodox. And it has no kiruv, or outreach agenda to attract secular Jews to Jewish observance.
Which is why, said Namdar, Midrasha has proved popular among a growing number of Israelis here.
“It’s not pushy at all,” he said. “Israelis here, even people who feel very comfortable in English, feel a special intimacy in [speaking in] Hebrew. The Hebrew is a very important part of the identity of Israelis … especially for more secular Israelis who are less responsive to the usual ‘Jewish-speak’” [religious orientation] of programs for Israelis in the U.S. offered by synagogue and JCCs.
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The absence of an overt religious pitch is “appealing to Israelis,” agreed Anat Feinberg, a native of Israel who moved to the States eight years ago, serves as director of alumni relations for the American Technion Society, and regularly attends Midrasha programs. “This is a way to connect with my Israel roots and my Jewish identity.”
The Midrasha budget, raised mostly from private donations and a small number of grants, was under $20,000 in its first year; its second-year budget is less than $50,000, Shulman said.
She said one mark of the Midrasha’s success is its growing word-of-mouth acceptance among Israelis here. Its ultimate success, she said, will be strengthening Jewish identity among Israeli New Yorkers, not meeting other Israelis here, who tell her after 40 years in the States, that “speaking Hebrew wasn’t enough.”
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