(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Walking up to the guard booth at the entrance to Jerusalem’s Ulpan Etzion, a venerable Hebrew-teaching facility, Rabbi David Sterne informed the guard that he had been invited by a group of students to deliver a Torah lesson – only to be told that orders from above prohibited him from setting foot there.
A Chabad rabbi living in the Old City, who has been teaching religious classes at the Jewish Agency-run Hebrew language academy for new immigrants since 2009, Sterne has been frozen out by the facility’s management.
Smiling ruefully and stating that he had expected just such a response, the rabbi called one of his students at the ulpan, instructing him to round up the other members of the Torah class and meet him outside. A half hour later a small group of immigrants from Argentina, Ukraine and the US was sitting around a table in his apartment in the Jewish quarter listening to a lesson on the weekly Torah portion.
Asking for an explanation in a recent letter to Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, Sterne said that in 2009 he was given a warm reception by the ulpan’s management, which convened an assembly to introduce him to newly minted Israelis. However, problems started early on, Sterne said, noting that “found it strange that the director tried to tell me what to teach in the lesson I gave.”
Starting in 2012, he complained, the administration ceased publicizing his lessons, “began creating scheduling problems, unnecessarily creating conflicts with my once-a-week class in the ulpan” and told him that he would no longer be allowed to arrange trips for students.
“In January 2014, the administration told me that I could no longer mingle and speak with the students, eliminating my last tool for reaching them,” he continued, adding that one of the administrators decided to ban all rabbis from the ulpan until he “could find the one ‘rabbi’ who was allegedly coming into the ulpan at strange hours without permission.”
“For me, this was the last straw,” Sterne told The Jerusalem Post
. “I was always very careful about when I entered the ulpan and for what purpose, and I certainly never entered without permission. This was just outrageous, and I asked the director if he intended to bring us back in once he found out who was entering without permission. He did not answer.”
“When I try to think about all this, and what is the motivation for this attitude, especially among olim who are increasingly religious, I really think it has to do with the attitude of the administration. They are secular – not anti-religious mind you – but they have a secular agenda. The director wants to provide ‘academic Judaism’ – not the real thing, Torah and mitzvot.
“The only problem is he is ignoring the will of the students. The students are used to and want a ‘real’ rabbi, not a professor with a kippa on his head. If you want to help people, you have to help them with what they need, not with what you think they should have. The students have voted (my petition of 300 students) – they want real rabbis, not tepid ‘stand-ins.’”
Sterne is “very dedicated and knowledgeable and tries very hard to provide some sort of anchor to people who make aliya. In order to go to Etzion you have to be single so we’re talking about young people who come without their families,” said Dov, a former student who asked that his last name not be published. “He provides an important function, allowing students to feel they have someone older looking out for them who satisfies other needs that Ulpan Etzion doesn’t satisfy.”
Asked about the rabbi’s complaints, a Jewish Agency spokesman said that his organization “reflects a vast range of Jewish perspectives and serves individuals from across the ideological and religious spectrum” and that the ulpan offers a “safe and warm environment in which to take their first steps as Israeli citizens.
“In order to provide the immigrants with a rich and varied educational experience, outside lecturers on Jewish subjects and other topics are regularly welcomed onto the premises with prior coordination and approval.
These lecturers are carefully selected in order to ensure that their presentations are consistent with the institution’s commitment to Jewish pluralism and general diversity of opinion. In the coming months, we will be launching a brand-new Jewish studies program in partnership with Bar-Ilan University in order to further enrich the students’ experience and deepen their Jewish knowledge.”
However, he continued, some individuals have entered the ulpan “without authorization and have made presentations that did not meet the institution’s educational standards. Moreover, there have been instances in which these unapproved lecturers have defamed the institution’s administration in public forums in an effort to convince the immigrants to apply pressure on the administration to acquiesce to the lecturers’ presence. We view this conduct as wholly inappropriate and detrimental to both the immigrants’ experience and the general educational environment.”
“Lecturers who are willing to comply with Ulpan Etzion’s rules, whose presentations are consistent with the institution’s educational mission and commitment to Jewish pluralism, and who receive the administration’s approval to present on campus will continue to be welcome at Ulpan Etzion. Those who do not meet these minimum requirements are welcome to find other locations in which to hold their activities.”
Sterne issued the following statement in response: “I never entered Ulpan Etzion without approval of the administration and to imply otherwise is not only dishonest, but is deliberately provocative. The administration needs to find other ways to vent its frustration over its failure to provide attractive programming for the wonderful new olim , most of whom know more about Judaism that does the administration of Ulpan Etzion. I know how to provide the programming that the olim seek, as proven by the petition signed by 300 students and close to 50 letters of recommendation.”