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Thomas Friedman's gratifying essay "Israel Discovers Oil," which ran in the New York Times section of The Jerusalem Post (June 18), was widely circulated by pro-Israel e-mail lists. Friedman had discovered oil wells in Beersheba. Not secret oil rigs in the desert capital. Friedman was referring to "the ecosystem of young innovators" whom he'd met at an end-of-the-year display of the biomedical engineering, software, electrical engineering and computing projects being developed by Ben-Gurion University students.
In Friedman's world view, there was good reason for optimism in this tiny country which, outside of the United States, has produced the most companies listed on the NASDAQ. Combine the creativity of those engineering students with venture capital, and voila, you get the edge a country needs.
The real competition, Friedman claims, is "between you and your own imagination." My favorite part of the essay lauds our culture, which "nurtures and rewards individual imagination - one with no respect for limits of hierarchies or fear of failure." Friedman didn't elucidate what he meant by that "culture," and some may credit irreverent, argumentative sabra brashness as the source of our resourcefulness and abilities of quick improvisation. Others will look back further and claim that the source of creativity comes from the Jewish study tradition. In the Beit Midrash, the Jewish study hall where arguments over meaning proliferate, well-based but inventive explanations trump rote memorization. But today the roads to the yeshiva and the laboratory are unlikely to cross.
I COULDN'T help thinking of Friedman's essay at a celebratory dinner to mark 40 years of Rabbi Chaim Brovender teaching Torah in Israel. The word "creativity" kept surfacing, mostly as student after student showered praise on the various study halls presided over - often from the back of a room at a desk himself - by the Brooklyn-born Rabbi Chaim Brovender.
He moved to Israel before the Six Day War and delivered mail on a motor scooter. He served in the IDF. After the Six Day War, the young Yeshiva University graduate and graduate student in Semitic languages at Hebrew University, began opening the world of Jewish literacy to college graduates arriving from abroad. The typical Brovender students had Ivy League degrees, but they couldn't tell you why the menora in the Temple had seven branches and a Hanukkah menora had eight. Rabbi Brovender directed them to Torah study and developed a successful method for imparting the tools they would need to decode the primary sources of the Jewish people. He guided them through life choices with his mix of straight talk and criticism-deflecting humor. Because his credo was that everyone should study Torah, that meant women, too. So he started groundbreaking women's study centers in Jerusalem, including classes in Talmud. A learned friend confided that she had known that "Brovender's" was synonym for advanced Torah education for women before she knew that there was indeed a Chaim Brovender behind it all.
THE YESHIVOT had different names - Hartman's, Shapell's, Yeshivat Hamivtar, Bruria, Midreshet Lindenbaum - but wherever they were, what made his study programs especially attractive was Rabbi Brovender's respect for the individualism of each student. He wouldn't have been proud if the Harvard medical student or the Bennington poet had abandoned their secular studies. Just the opposite. He hoped that the special skills, talents and knowledge of those educated in the secular world could now be brought into the religious world and would enrich it, just as the Torah world would enrich those who embraced it in the secular world.
Too many of the newly observant were overwhelmed by the pressure to conform to the norms of the more extreme Orthodox world in which their own education was devalued. They could make it right by becoming soldiers in an army dedicated to producing a new generation that would be authentically religious.
Bringing up observant children and choosing the right school for them is indeed harder for those who haven't themselves grown up within a religious world. In many ways, an insular school system of extreme religious homogeneity might seem as if it would be a safer choice in perpetuating new religious values. That almost certainly removes your children, no matter how smart, from being part of the "ecosystem of young inventors," the "room buzzing with student innovators" that Tom Friedman described in Beersheba. On the other hand, we aren't building the Jewish State only to be another Silicon Valley. We also want to reflect Mount Sinai.
FROM THE talk over canap s at the celebratory dinner last week, it seemed that most of the attendees were trying to shepherd their children through the complex world where they would have the ability and desire to read both a page of Talmud and an academic journal. That's unusual for a community that is largely composed of those who became observant as adults.
They felt empowered to do this by Rabbi Brovender, who aimed at his students synthesizing past and present rather than abandoning either.
My husband and I are among the many who owe a debt of gratitude to Rabbi Chaim Brovender for our love of Torah. We hope we've passed on his values to our children. On the day that Thomas Friedman visited Ben-Gurion University, one of our children who manages to keep up with the daily page of Talmud was there, too. In the oil well category. May they gush on.
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