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Jerusalem’s Conservative Yeshiva ‘defies Gravity’ of Security Situation

February 7, 2002
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A favorite expression being used these days at the Conservative Yeshiva is “defying gravity.”

Despite the serious political and security situation in Israel, enrollment has risen by 25 percent to 45 students — and they’re all glued to their Gemaras.

“These are people who are here for a purpose,” said Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, the yeshiva’s director. “They could be working, but they delayed a year of $85,000 salaries to come and study at the yeshiva.”

The yeshiva is designed to give North American Jews the skills for Jewish learning, building learned lay leaders who will continue in the Conservative movement back at home.

Some of the yeshiva students do end up going to rabbinical school, but the yeshiva doesn’t intend to be a boot camp for rabbis, explained Rabbi Joel Roth, one of the yeshiva’s two directors.

For that, they can go to one of the two Conservative rabbinical schools — the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York or the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Rabbinical students at either school spend a year in Israel at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, the local seminary for the Conservative movement — or Masorti, as the movement is known in Israel.

Schechter also operates as a local graduate school for Jewish education and offers a basket of educational services to the Tali school system, which both establishes Masorti schools and injects Jewish content into the public school system.

The ideologies behind Schechter and the yeshiva are similar, despite their different populations.

“We’re bringing pluralistic Jewish education to the state of Israel,” explained Rabbi David Golinkin, Schechter’s American-born rector and president. “Our rabbinical school has a similar ideology.”

The difference is that Schechter is bringing Jewish education to the Israeli masses, while the yeshiva hopes to create role models for Jewish learning in North America.

“We want this to be the address for the Conservative Jew to come and learn for three days or three years,” Roth said. “They should know that there is a place for serious Conservative study in Jerusalem.”

When it was first established — within the last five years — the yeshiva was located in the sanctuary of Beit Knesset Moreshet Yisrael, the synagogue headquarters of the Masorti movement in Israel.

That created some difficult logistical and theological issues for the movement, however.

“It was tough at the beginning,” admitted Rabbi James Lebeau, director of the Fuchsberg Center, the recently refurbished United Synagogue headquarters in Israel. “There had to be a new recognition of the yeshiva and its values for our movement.”

In other words, the world of the Conservative yeshiva is quite different than that of the average Conservative community in North America.

Consider an average yeshiva day. Morning services are held every day at 7:20, followed by breakfast an hour later and the first Talmud class at 9 o’clock.

The yeshiva uses the traditional method of hevruta, or one-on-on study, combined with group study. The first Talmud hevruta of the day is followed by a Talmud class in which the teacher goes over the text studied earlier.

The afternoon service is at 1:00, followed by lunch. On some afternoons, you can hear the mixed student-teacher a capella group practicing its melodies.

An afternoon hevruta and class are followed by the evening Ma’ariv service at 6:00, and an optional evening class at 6:45.

“The sense of excitement here is palpable,” said Roth, a professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary on an extended leave of absence. “There’s very little that could have moved me out of JTS, except the excitement of the yeshiva.”

The maze of rooms that makes up the yeshiva buzzes with activity. Located in two apartments behind the new Jerusalem headquarters of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, students and teachers rotate among the yeshiva’s offices to the Beit Midrash, or study room, communal kitchen and Roth’s office.

“There’s a great buzz in the beit midrash,” said Joanna Selznik Dulkin, whose year in Israel is her first time in the country. “There’s all this spiritual, simultaneous learning. It’s inspiring.”

This is a comfortable, cohesive, egalitarian community. Most students are dressed in jeans, and some of the women wear yarmulkes. When the minyan gathers for services, either a man or a woman could be leading the group in prayer.

“I could have learned at any number of other places this year, but I wanted to support liberal Judaism in Israel,” Selznick Dulkin said. “I can put on my tallis and tefillin, and it’s not an issue.”

That is a primary concern for many of the students here. They wanted a pluralistic community where study is taken seriously, but with a more critical view on the Jewish texts than in traditional yeshivas. In short, they wanted a Conservative yeshiva.

“The yeshiva is true to its word,” said Meira Silverstein, 22, a violinist who is studying part-time at the yeshiva. “It’s a Conservative setting and Conservative ideology, but everyone’s very serious about the texts.”

The yeshiva is an arm of United Synagogue, the affiliation of North American Conservative synagogues, but is under the academic aegis of the Jewish Theological Seminary. It is Conservative, but open to students of all streams.

“We have guidelines, but no Conservative coercion. We try to be accommodating,” Roth explained.

Roth, who has been teaching at JTS for nearly 40 years, and shares his role as yeshiva head with Rabbi Pesach Schindler, who has been with the yeshiva since its establishment.

Their plan is to have various groups of Conservative laity spend time at the yeshiva. They could include congregational groups spending just half a day learning to programs geared for specific professions, such as medical ethics for doctors or Jewish law for attorneys.

For now, most of the yeshiva students are spending the year after college in Israel before embarking on a career or graduate studies.

The yeshiva is starting a pre-college year in Israel in September, similar to the long-standing programs at various Orthodox yeshivas throughout Israel. In fact, a percentage of this year’s students are on Nativ, the United Synagogue Youth’s freshman year program in Israel, spending a quarter of their time learning at the yeshiva.

There also is a new summer program for students of all levels and backgrounds, who spend three weeks at the yeshiva learning texts and take a daily ulpan to build Hebrew skills.

“The word is out,” Roth said. “Our reputation is that we’re a serious place where serious things go on.”

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