A dozen men and women, all in their early 20s, are sitting around tables in the makeshift study hall. In twos and threes, oblivious to the rare desert downpour outside, they are reading together, debating the meaning of an ancient text. The heated discussions are strangely reminiscent for anyone with a yeshiva background, but here there are three main differences - half the students are women, some of the men are bareheaded and the text they're studying is one of Plato's dialogues.
"When we started the program," says Micha Goodman, joint director of Ein Prat - Israeli Academy for Leadership, "I took the first four students to the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem to see the beit midrash [study hall] there. I wanted them to hear the noise of Torah learning there and feel the incredible energy. From there, we went to the library at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, with its neurotic silence. But I said to them that in the university, everyone was learning something different. The point I was trying to impress upon them was that we can combine the energy of the yeshiva with the diversity of the university."
Goodman, 32, has studied and taught at both yeshivot and the Hebrew University, and he finds much he would like to adopt from both systems of learning, and quite a lot he prefers to discard.
"In a university," he says, "there is estrangement and loneliness. You can't talk to anyone because you have to keep quiet in the library. But in a yeshiva, everyone is the same, so in neither is there a real dialogue going on. You can study so many different things in university, but none of it is supposed to influence you. In yeshiva they want you to be influenced by what you learn, but they also want to decide exactly how it influences you."
One of the intriguing social and educational developments here over the past two decades has been the growth of the mechinot, the pre-army academies. They began as a solution devised by rabbis and educators in the national-religious community to prevent the graduates of religious high schools from losing their religious convictions during army service. Those unwilling to undergo the rigors of yeshiva life were encouraged to take a year off between high-school graduation and IDF service and take part in a year-long program of preparation for army life.
The academies proved wildly popular and new ones sprang up around the country. Their rabbis instilled their students not only with Torah ideals but with a fierce determination to succeed in the military, and their success soon became evident in the IDF's elite units and officers' course, in which the ranks were filled with kippa-wearing academy alumni. This development was not unnoticed by educators in other parts of society, and they were quick to emulate the success and set up "mixed" (combining both religious and secular students) pre-army academies.
These academies were different from their religious counterparts in two main points: They accepted women and the curriculum included secular and non-Jewish texts along with the traditional religious literature. But both streams of academies had a joint purpose, providing the 18-year-olds with the intellectual and ideological tools to transform them into a new generation of leaders.
The Ein Prat academy, next to Alon, a small settlement of religious and secular families in the Judean Desert, started out as another pre-army academy, but Goodman, who was asked to join its faculty two years ago, wanted to take the framework a step further.
"Young people after the army are at the most strategic point in their own identity. When they go to university, they will ask themselves what they want to do in life, but here they're asking themselves who they want to be. Religious people can go back to yeshiva to 'refuel' and the secular go on a trek in India - those are the options. I thought that the most interesting thing would to be set up an academy for IDF graduates."
Danny Segal, who teaches Torah and Talmud at the academy, agrees that this is the best time to study. "Those who come here before the army are perhaps left with 10 percent of everything we've done. Now they are at a point where there is nothing between them and their real lives."
Erez Eshel, the other joint director of the academy, was the founder of the first mixed pre-army academy a decade ago, and believes that this is the laboratory in which the nucleus of the country's future leadership is being formed.
"The fact that they are prepared to take a time-out from their lives and come here shows the kind of people they are," he says. "The ability to lead is something they will be able to derive from what they learn here."
From its humble beginnings, the program is now in its third session with 20 students, and Eshel envisions a new style of elite university. "We are going to have hundreds of students," he promises, "all learning in small groups of no more than seven, each with its own tutor, just like in Oxford and Cambridge. The next stage will be for our graduates to set up communes around the country, where they will continue studying and working with society."
Meanwhile, the students at Ein Prat believe that they are attending something totally different from a university. "If I simply wanted to understand something about philosophy, I would have gone to university," explains Sara Dormbus, 21, a student from Jerusalem. "But here we get so many different other things."
TEACHERS AND students at Ein Prat believe that they are doing something much more profound than the simple transfer of knowledge. They are constructing their identity.
"We have to try to define our Jewish, Israeli and Zionist identity" says Goodman. "It's not about being religious or secular; it's about broadening the accessibility to all the sources and abolishing the cultural gaps. Most Israelis are in an identity coma. Ignorance isn't a lack of knowledge, but not knowing what is relevant to your own identity. We are burrowing into our genes.
"It's also about being part of the Western culture, like it or not, that forms who we are. That's why in addition to religious and secular Jewish texts, we also study the New Testament, Dante, Shakespeare, Spinoza and Plato. Even the most liberal yeshivot have lost sight of the fact that Maimonides read the Torah through Aristotle's eyes, Rabbi Kook was influenced by Hegel, Rabbi Soloveichik by Kant. How can we learn Maimonides without knowing the sources of his inspiration?"
All this and more is crammed into an intensive four-and-a-half months of study at the academy. Rachel Rov, an educator at Ein Prat, explains that the period "seemed to us like just the right time. It's not too long before the big trip for whoever's going or before university. We also have a few students who have come after finishing their BA."
The program is comprised of three periods. In the first the students find their bearings, get to grips with the texts and get used to the system of self-study interspersed with regular classes. In the second, they are supposed to get used to learning as much as possible on their own, with just one fellow student, with minimal tutoring. By the last period, they are expected to deliver some of the classes themselves.
"At the beginning, they are in a kind of shock" explains Rov. "It takes time to find study partners, to choose the books they prefer to take off the shelf, to develop tools of self-study. We don't want them to be the kind of people who are always looking for a good teacher or lecturer. Instead they should be capable of opening any book themselves.
"We want our secular students to overcome the unease they have with learning Talmud and our religious students that they have with studying philosophy. We're treading a very thin line between an intellectual exercise and a spiritual experience. This is just the beginning; the students here are starting a long quest for their Jewish-Israeli identity."
She explains that the group experience is also a major part of the program. "Living here together is an integral part - the atmosphere of the desert, the walk down to the spring, the hikes we go on together. It all builds up the experience."
In addition to the intellectual work, the program includes a daily hour-long period of physical activity in which the students can run or take yoga or kung-fu lessons.
Limor Weissbart, the yoga instructor, explains that "this is one of the few places that understands that working only with your head leaves something missing. If you spend the whole day studying, you might come out full of knowledge, but other physical and emotional parts of you will become fossilized. I studied at a midrasha [religious women's yeshiva] and my husband was a yeshiva student, and we both know how much the physical part was missing from our lives. Here the physical experience is as meaningful as the study. Anyone capable of running or doing yoga for a couple of hours can also study much better or undertake any ideological endeavor."
One of the striking features of the academy at Ein Prat is the breaking down of the normal boundaries between secular and religious.
"On one hand we can't be defined as secular or religious here," Goodman says. "On the other, I think that religious students can become more deeply religious and secular ones more deeply secular to understand where they really stand."
"We are all used to black and white," says Anat Silverstone, a student from a religious family in Jerusalem. "We are all products of red lines, of limits, but here the lines are blurred. The more I become exposed to different people, the more I learn to accept the complexities and turn away from the dichotomy. No one here wanted to classify me; it took some of the people at the academy two months to find out I was religious. The confrontation here can be difficult; when you question all your beliefs, it can break you down, but I found that ultimately it strengthened my religious beliefs."
"One of our secular students came to me one day," recalls Segal, "and said that he wanted to start wearing some kind of Jewish clothing. He felt it was important for his personal identity. But since he wasn't becoming religious, he didn't want to put a kippa on, as that would create the wrong impression. Instead he decided to wear tzitzit [a ritual fringed garment] under his shirt as a personal act of Jewishness without anyone having to know. That's the kind of thing that can only happen here."
Dror Yahav is a 24-year-old intelligence officer who took temporary leave from his IDF unit to take part in the Ein Prat program. He comes from a secular family in Yavne, but he now sports a small beard and a blue kippa which he wears "to show my family that something has changed with me." But he is not sure yet that he can be classified as religious.
"I find a lot of attractive things in all religious streams, secular, national-religious and haredi, but also things I don't like," he says. "My personal aspiration is to find what it means to be a Jew in 2007, and I hope to find the first clues here. I decided not to go to a yeshiva because I don't want to be classified. Together with a lot of people here, I'm looking for a renewal, something else, something good."n