An educational oasis

BINA’s Tel Aviv Secular Yeshiva attracts locals and gap-year students from the US.

By ITAY GODER
August 29, 2019 14:46
An educational oasis

A BINA participant teaches a child as part of the social action program. (photo credit: Courtesy)



At first glance, the rundown Neve Ofer neighborhood in south Tel Aviv does not appear to be the ideal location for a secular yeshiva preparatory youth program before recruitment to the IDF.

But believe it or not, it works.

Students at BINA’s Tel Aviv Secular Yeshiva, which opened in 2006 in the Tel Aviv Nature Parks complex, study Jewish books that include the Bible, Mishna and Talmud, Jewish philosophy, and Hebrew literature and poetry. The full-time yeshiva students, about 200 a year, are also involved in social-welfare activities in the predominantly poor neighborhood.

The two main projects of the yeshiva are the International Leadership Preparatory Program, where young groups of high school graduates study before being drafted into the army alongside young people studying after military service; and holiday and Hebrew culture events regularly held for the general public, as the yeshiva seeks to create secular scholars who will be influential leaders in Israeli society.

This unique combination generates a positive ripple effect: there has been a significant migration to the neighborhood of young adults in recent years due to favorable rental and real estate prices. Also, the proximity to the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Academic College has a high potential to draw more neighborhood students.

“I really like this place,” says Yuval Linden, head of the BINA pre-military preparatory program. “It is a wonderful place, although it is not always what it appears to be. Learning at BINA requires us to work in an area that does not always seem convenient and easy. When you think about it, the connection we draw between Jewish texts and social justice work in Neve Ofer is really imperative.”

Rabbi Eli Sadan, founder of the Bnei David pre-army IDF preparatory in the settlement of Eli, was awarded the Israel Prize in 2016 for establishing the nationwide pre-military preparatory program. This enterprise, which began in 1989, now has more than 50 recognized programs approved by the Defense Ministry and the Education Ministry.

The preparatory yeshivas were first established within religious Zionism, and then in 1997 the first secular and mixed (secular and religious) programs were opened by educational entrepreneurs, and developed rapidly. In 2008, its activity was regulated by the Pre-Military Preparatory Law.

The number of teens wishing to enroll in such programs has been steadily increasing. Although more programs are opened each year, many who are interested have no place to go because the growth rate does not keep up with the growing demand. This important enterprise has a profound impact on the IDF and Israeli society, on its culture, and on building its future leadership.
Since the Pre-Military Preparatory Law was enacted in 2008, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of preparatory students. At that time there were approximately 1,600 trainees, but by 2018 the number increased to 4,076 trainees studying in 74 religious, secular and mixed programs.

These pre-military programs are spread throughout the country, from Metzar and Ma’ayan Baruch in the north to Hatzeva and Faran in the south, in kibbutzim, moshavim and localities in Judea and Samaria.

Most of the growth in the number of trainees occurred in “general” preparatory programs, that is, those that are not merely religious but are secular and religious mixed together, or intended for a secular population.

In 2008, the number of trainees in religious and general preparatory programs was about equal: about 780 trainees in general, and about 760 in religious settings. Since then, many more secular preparatory institutions have opened, and the number of students has increased. Today the number of trainees in “general” preparatory programs is about three times that of religious students.

Secular and mixed preparatory institutions were set up to advance specific goals: to reduce the tension between religious and secular, to deepen solidarity in Israeli society, to strengthen Zionist and Jewish identity among secular and religious youth, as well as to strengthen the youths’ motivation to do meaningful military service and even officer training.

“BINA” means “wisdom” in Hebrew. It is also an acronym for “A Home for the Creation of the Nation’s Soul,” a term coined by the Hebrew poet, Hayim Nahman Bialik. Today it is the leading movement in the fields of Jewish renaissance and social activism in Israel.

BINA aims to strengthen Israel as a democratic, pluralistic and just society through Jewish study, social action, and community building, emphasizing Jewish culture and values of tikkun olam (repairing the world).

BINA designs and implements cultural, social and educational programs annually reaching over 90,000 Israelis and Jews from all over the world in year-long programs, seminars and public events, with the goal of enhancing Jewish and Zionist identity, particularly among non-Orthodox Israelis.

Its combination study/service programs focus on young adults – today’s agents of change, tomorrow’s leaders – with the aim of inspiring a lifelong appreciation of textual study and a heightened sense of social justice. BINA was established by a group of intellectuals and scholars from the kibbutz movement, as a response to the breakdown in public trust and unity in the aftermath of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Since its establishment in 1996, BINA has become a vibrant pluralistic center for Jewish learning and tikkun olam.

BINA’s approach to Jewish study is inclusive, egalitarian and engaging, with the goal of instilling a love of learning alongside the ability to question, criticize and interpret ancient sources, so that they remain relevant and inspirational today.

This is crucial for secular Israelis, who often associate Judaism with Orthodoxy or harbor hostile attitudes toward it and are  quite ignorant of Jewish life or indifferent to it. BINA’s approach to social action is both a means to engage young Jews to practice Jewish values as well as a platform for strengthening vulnerable populations and supporting weak communities throughout Israel.

Adolescents who join preparatory programs defer their service and enlist in the IDF about a year after their peers (or six months, in the case of the so-called Horizon programs). During that time, they explore the meaning of Judaism and Israeli society in their own world through in-depth study sessions.

The period of time when young men and women prepare for military service is an important juncture in their lives, a phase of growing up in which they develop their ability to examine, evaluate and account for themselves, and to choose the directions that will shape them as mature people in society.

Students in preparatory programs are busy looking for answers to questions posed by Israeli society, with the aim of formulating their personal identity and providing value-based anchors for their lives. They are busy with the big questions: What is the exemplary society? What will be the character of Judaism during this period? It’s also important for these young people to raise more individual questions, as well: What do I want to do with my life and what are the things that really matter to me?

To clarify these questions, we met a group of young Americans who came to Israel for a year through BINA’s gap-year program – students who live in south Tel Aviv and volunteer in various projects with the children of foreign workers in private kindergartens of foreign children, and more.

Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg, a Chicago native, received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from McGill University and a master’s degree in Jewish education and Israeli literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He taught Hebrew for four years in a Jewish day school in New York, until he had a “quarter-life crisis” and decided he wanted to fix the world. He came to Israel for BINA’s tikkun olam program.

“I came here because I care about repairing the world, Jewish pluralism, and social justice, and I’ve been here ever since,” says Glassenberg.

Glassenberg is involved in the LGBTQ center and in the Conservative community of Neve Tzedek. “I teach Judaism and the Bible and try to create the same feeling for the youngsters toward Jewish texts that I got from my teachers,” he says.

Talia nods in agreement. “He’s a wonderful teacher,” she says. “I love his lessons the most.”

Talia grew up in a traditional Jewish home in Seattle. She wanted to live in Israel for a while, learn about Judaism and connect with Israel in her own way. For the past year she has been volunteering at the MESILA organization.

“This year is one of the best experiences I have had,” she says. “I volunteer two days a week, sometimes three. I work with a population I never knew. It’s great.”

Abigail’s experience is similar. She grew up in a New York Orthodox family and attended an Orthodox Jewish school. She does not define herself as Orthodox, but very much loves Judaism and enjoys studying Judaism from a secular perspective, together with Israelis.

Abigail teaches English at Golomb School, and this year she came to know communities to which she had never been exposed. “It’s a huge challenge, but thanks to the support we get here, I succeeded,” says Abigail. “When I get to school and the kids run up to me, I know I’ve done something good.”

The program also attracts Israelis, such as Yoav, who lives in Tel Mond. Yoav volunteers at the Bialik Rogosin School, helping children with homework and extracurricular activities.

“I would not trade this year for any money in the world,” Yoav says. “It has strengthened me greatly and helped me with my self-identity. It’s just tremendous.”


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