Tel Aviv yeshiva tries to keep budding artists within the fold

Bar-Ilan is the only yeshiva in Israel that offers programs in music and visual arts (drawing, painting, photography and film).

shamrock star of david  (photo credit: )
shamrock star of david
(photo credit: )
It is their last subject before a pizza lunch at the Bar-Ilan Arts and Sciences Yeshiva High School, and the seven budding musicians studying sonata forms in Ro'i Shapira's class have their eyes glued to the clock. Oren Keller, 14, plays the trombone and is the youngest pupil in the yeshiva, located on Tel Aviv's tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard. "This school is more fun than my other school, [which] didn't have a music program," Keller told The Jerusalem Post last week. "But I also get more homework here." And with that the clock strikes lunch and within seconds Shapira's students dodge the TAMA drums and brown Petrof piano and disappear into the hallway. "These kids are religious, but otherwise they are no different than other kids who study music," Shapira says as he gathers up his notes. While the students may not be atypical, their school certainly is. Bar-Ilan is the only yeshiva in Israel that offers programs in music and visual arts (drawing, painting, photography and film). "This place is very unique," says Rabbi Benny Perl, the school's principal and founder. "It's the first time a yeshiva has reached out to connect religious studies with art studies. Our focus is not only to make Jewish music and art, but for our talented students to graduate with a strong Jewish identity and art and music education. We want to open the world to these students and widen their horizons," Perl says. The school's detractors fear the arts will tempt the students into adopting a secular lifestyle. Perl realizes that its location in the heart of Tel Aviv does little to assuage such fears. But he's quick to add that not everyone in the Orthodox community objects to his arts school. "Israelis rarely agree on anything," he says with an easy smile. "While some rabbis don't approve of my school, others think it is wonderful. "The religious culture is a closed culture," he continues. "But religion can be very interesting when we open it up and incorporate art and music. It's dangerous and a mistake to close doors. Closing doors doesn't protect young people." Perl, who paints and plays the clarinet, wants his high school students to have the opportunities to develop their talents and to enhance both the Orthodox and artistic communities. "The students here are really curious about music and art," he says. "I am giving them a place to satisfy their curiosity. If they don't learn about music and art here, under rabbinical guidance, they will learn about it elsewhere. "But here they remain connected to the religious world," Perl continues. "Not all the students listen to religious music, but when they create they choose Jewish themes. It's very interesting that they do that." Shapira, who started teaching at the yeshiva this year, agrees. "Music and art are not bad," he says. "If they don't get their input here they will get it elsewhere. They won't become Christian if they see and learn about Christian art. But they will become well-rounded." Opening the school five years ago amid heated opposition wasn't easy, and neither is maintaining it. The NIS 6,000 tuition is beyond the reach of most of the families of the 240 pupils. The yeshiva is partly funded by the Education Ministry but depends heavily on donations. "We are very bad schnorrers," says Perl. "But we have to be. Arts and music programs are very expensive." Last year's music equipment and art materials cost NIS 460,000. "Every year I fight budgetary battles," Perl adds. "And I will keep fighting for this yeshiva. I want to make a little change in the religious community and in Israeli culture, and this yeshiva can bring about this much-needed change. "In Israel each group lives in boxes. We live like strangers, in separate corners steadfastly maintaining our different perceptions and points of view. But the arts can initiate dialogue and expose us to our differences, but it is also a vehicle through which we connect and come together. And we need to come together."