Rediscovering the Bible in Sde Boker

“My aim was to give people in this area the opportunity to read a traditional Jewish text and feel a connection through discussion and reflection,” Lederfein-Gilboa told the Magazine.

By ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ
June 5, 2019 16:26
Rediscovering the Bible in Sde Boker

AT A weekly study group: ‘We were very happy to renew the Bible learning at this location.’. (photo credit: ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ)

When Efrat Lederfein-Gilboa moved to Ramat Negev five years ago, she had a vision – to create a secular Beit Midrash in a region where the opportunities to study traditional Jewish texts are as scarce as springs of water in the local desert landscape.

“My aim was to give people in this area the opportunity to read a traditional Jewish text and feel a connection through discussion and reflection,” Lederfein-Gilboa told the Magazine in a recent interview.

Sporting tattoos of a pomegranate and a ram on her left arm, Lederfein-Gilboa, 34, who is studying for a master’s in Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, decided that the most appropriate text for study was the Bible.

“In the beginning, I thought of teaching texts like the Talmud or Zohar as those are my natural fields of study,” she said. “But I realized that the Bible would be a more natural choice of study for people of a secular background.”

She first contacted the 929 Project, an innovative weekly study program of the Bible, which encourages the establishment of study groups throughout Israel and provides a framework for anyone wanting to study the Bible through registration on the project’s website and a set learning schedule – five chapters a week with a plethora of support materials available via a website, app, podcasts and more.

Launched by Rabbi Benny Lau and former deputy education minister Avi Vortzman in December 2014, the 929 Project is named for the 929 chapters of the Hebrew Bible and is currently in its second cycle (the first cycle ended July 2018).

Following contact with 929, Lederfein-Gilboa reached out to the Ramat Negev Regional Council, which voiced its approval as well.
“Everyone I spoke with was pleased with the idea,” she commented.

But Lederfein-Gilboa was stumped as to where the study group should meet. The Ramat Negev Regional Council, the largest regional council in Israel, is home to fewer than 5,000 people who live in moshavim, kibbutzim and community villages scattered across the heart of the Negev desert. At first, Lederfein-Gilboa debated whether to lead the study group in her home on the secular moshav, Kadesh Barnea, located on the Egyptian border. But she eventually came to the conclusion that the best location would be in the desert home of David and Paula Ben-Gurion on Kibbutz Sde Boker.

Indeed, David Ben-Gurion himself would from time to time host Bible study sessions on his birthdays in his Sde Boker home as well as his residence in Tel Aviv.

“It’s probably the first time that such a Bible study group has met here on a consistent basis since Ben-Gurion’s passing in 1973,” said Eytan Donyets, director of the David Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute, which oversees the Ben-Gurion desert home and works to promote and preserve the historical legacy of Israel’s first prime minister.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re secular or religious – the Bible is part of our culture and nation. Ben-Gurion drew much inspiration from the Bible regarding what constitutes a fair and just society,” he said.

“We were very happy to renew the Bible learning at this location,” said Donyets. “It’s very meaningful to continue Ben-Gurion’s tradition of Bible study in Sde Boker.”

For Razy Yahel, one of the participants of the weekly study group, the Wednesday evening study sessions have proved to be inspiring for the 70-year-old kibbutznik.

“I wouldn’t have had the stamina to study the Bible so consistently on my own,” he told the Magazine. “To study five chapters each week is not easy, but I find the reading and discussion that follows fascinating.”

Yahel, who has been a member of Kibbutz Sde Boker for more than 45 years and has worked both in farming, agriculture and the economic management of the kibbutz, said it was his childhood memories of studying Bible in school that drew him to the Bible study.

THE BEN-GURION Heritage Institute. (Credit: ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ)

“I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that was literally right outside my door, that I could learn Tanach on my kibbutz,” said Yahel, who grew up in Moledet, a moshav in the North. “The last time I really studied Tanach was in high school. At this point in my life, I feel a sense of closure in that I get to really understand and appreciate the text.”

Yahel recalled that even in university when he had to take a Judaic course to complete his degree, he chose to study Talmud.

“I remember feeling so disappointed with my Talmud studies at the university that I really wanted to study Tanach again,” he said.

“What I love about our group’s discussions is that we don’t deal with rabbinical commentary so much, but rather analyze and understand the text ourselves, which I find to be a much more personal experience. Each person in our group contributes so much – and the comments are often right on target.”

Although Yahel describes himself as a secular Jew, he believes that the Bible is the basis of the Jewish world. “For me, the Bible is a history book, the earliest history book in the world. It also gives us the geographical history of the land of Israel. I have found answers to all kinds of geographical questions about the land of Israel during these study sessions.”

“I look at the Tanach as teaching faith but not religion. I find it interesting to read what Ben-Gurion had to say about the Tanach,” said Yahel, who added that he identifies with a more rational approach to religion. “I really don’t understand the concept of God – and I have found that I’ve grown more skeptical over time.”

A younger participant, Hofit, 31, who grew up in a secular yishuv in the North and lives on Kibbutz Revivim with her husband today, sees the Bible in a different light.

“As a young girl, I wasn’t interested in studying Tanach at all, but in the past few years, the Tanach has drawn my interest much more, as have other works of Jewish literature,” she said. “The way I look at the Tanach today is that it is a very rich piece of literature. It is full of human interactions and details. I like to hear other people’s insights and learn of new angles to understand the text during our readings.”

Hofit says that she feels connected to Jewish traditions on a cultural level. “I’ve been told that my great-grandfather, who came to Israel from Poland in the 1920s, knew the entire Tanach by heart,” she said. “As his great-granddaughter, I felt that the right thing to do was to get to know the Tanach as I had never done before – in a way that was much more in depth and meaningful.”

In a recent study session, the participants began analyzing a chapter in the book of Joshua. Commenting on a conversation between Joshua and Caleb Ben-Yefuneh, one of the participants, Miryami, a veteran member of Kibbutz Sde Boker, joked that she could tell that these were elderly people.

“How can you tell? asked Efrat.

“They talk a lot – just like us,” Miryami said.

EFRAT LEDERFEIN-GILBOA at Ben-Gurion’s desert home. (Credit: ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ)

It is not coincidental that the participants, who come from Sde Boker, Midreshet Ben-Gurion, Kibbutz Revivim, Shizaf, Ashalim and other Ramat Negev communities, feel that the Bible study is a very personal experience. Lederfein-Gilboa explains that the secular Beit Midrash demands that participants bring themselves into the readings. “This kind of study allows participants much more freedom to explore. The characters become more human and relatable, and not just holy.”

Lederfein-Gilboa, who grew up in a liberal Orthodox home and attended religious school in Netanya, left the religious way of life when she was 20.

“In much of the religious world of study, there is a distance between yourself and the text and characters,” she explained. “My aim is to give people the chance to think about the text and feel the text is connected to them in some way. Most importantly, I want people to be able to feel that they can say something about what they are reading.”

She said she believes that Israeli society sends the wrong message about studying the Bible.

“There are people who are told that these texts are holy and sacred, and we can’t say anything about them because we don’t know enough or are not religious enough,” she said.

“We are all owners of this culture and have the privilege to study the masterpieces that come with it. I like the Tanach very much and identify with Ben-Gurion’s journey of being able to read the Bible in a non-traditional way. On the other hand, when I study the Bible, I am also part of the same long conversation that has continued all these years,” she said.

“From the people of the Talmud, Ibn Ezra, Rambam, Ramban and so on – everyone contributed their own commentary in our long history and now I’m giving my commentary as well – which is Israeli, secular, communal, a kind of desert perspective,” she notes with a smile.

Lederfein-Gilboa didn’t leave the religious world in anger.

“I just didn’t fit in or it didn’t fit me,” said the married mother of two young children. “But the religious world is still a part of me in some way. We have built what I describe is a Jewish home,” she said, noting that her husband also went through a similar experience, having grown up in a liberal Orthodox home and leaving religion as well.

Lederfein-Gilboa, who studied in BINA, a secular yeshiva network that offers pluralistic Jewish learning, moderates and leads readings of traditional texts with pre-army youth and young students across the South.

“I find that among the young Israelis I work with, the Bible isn’t nearly as beloved by them as the older generations,” she said. “The older people in these study sessions at Sde Boker simply love Tanach – they are so enthusiastic.”

“I see the Bible as a key to open that dusty Jewish closet. That cabinet is locked for many secular people, either from personal choice or lack of education,” she pointed out. “The Bible is really their most significant connection to Judaism.”

Razy Yahel says it was his curiosity more than anything that brought him to study the Bible.

“I think anyone who is curious like me and wants to find a way to get closer to his roots would join a project like this,” he said. “I made a wise decision joining this study group.”

The writer, who made aliyah from Maine in 2004, lives in Ramat Negev and works as an English teacher in Midreshet Ben-Gurion. She is a participant of the 929 Project in Sde Boker.


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