Beit Prat: A conversation with our past

The new Jerusalem branch of the coed Ein Prat Midrasha is taking on the mission of bringing young Israeli Jews of all backgrounds to study together under the same roof

Opening night of the Jerusalem Beit Prat (photo credit: ODELIA BARKAT)
Opening night of the Jerusalem Beit Prat
(photo credit: ODELIA BARKAT)
There are those in our generation who are wide awake to the imminent importance of building bridges between increasingly entrenched sectors, and have risen to the challenge.
The Ein Prat Midrasha, a coed seminary situated in the town of Alon overlooking the Dead Sea, has made it its mission to bring young Israeli Jews of all backgrounds to study together under the same roof. With two flagship programs – the four-month Maboa Seminar and the month-long summer Elul Program, Ein Prat has opened the door for hundreds of students, religious and secular alike, to deepen their knowledge in all branches of Jewish cultural legacy: Hebrew literature and poetry, Talmud and Tanach (Bible), theology and philosophy, history and film. Graduates leave the Midrasha having tasted everything from Spinoza to Amos Oz, and with an appetite for a continued study that is nothing less than an integral part of their lifestyle.
“We want to create a healthier relationship between Israelis and their past,” explains Micah Goodman, the highly regarded educator and author whose vision brought the Ein Prat Midrasha to life. “Many religious Jews in Israel have a tendency towards dogmatism; when you believe in divinely ordained [doctrine], you can’t listen to anyone else.
“At the same time, the ‘original sin’ of secular Jews is often complete ignorance when it comes to Judaism. They are the product of a generation of Israelis who completely rejected their religious roots, who refused to be controlled by their past; and so they turned their backs to it altogether.”
The central idea driving the midrasha, explains Goodman, is to spark a “paradigm shift” and shatter the “false dichotomy that dictates that we as Jews must either be enslaved by our past or forsake it entirely.” By bringing religious and secular youth together to study a portion of the Talmud or a poem by Natan Alterman, the Midrasha provides a common language and a natural platform for the cultural exchange that is so vital for a healthier conversation amongst ourselves, and between each of us and his or her Jewish roots.
Ein Prat prides itself on the fact that most of its creative energies spring not from the top down, but rather from its community of graduates, whose initiatives and ideas are the main lifeblood of the Midrasha’s activity. “Our graduates are not just members of the organization – they are the organization,” Goodman relates with emotion.
To establish a home in Jerusalem where this community can flourish, the Midrasha opened its new headquarters – the Jerusalem Beit Prat – at the beating heart of the city, 27 Hillel Street. The primary model for the other Batei Prat that have opened in Tel Aviv, Beersheba and Haifa, the Jerusalem branch has hosted scores of graduates since its debut at the end of October. Opening night saw more than 200 Jerusalemite students cram into the main hall for the kickoff lecture, followed by a marathon of study circles that went well into the early hours of the morning.
In fact, it is the graduates themselves who lead most of the activities at Beit Prat. Each evening of the week features at least one study circle headed by independent members of the community, delving into anything from texts of A.D.
Gordon to a series on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), and even yoga lessons.
Other lectures are held by a wide array of highly esteemed scholars and educators teaching at the Ein Prat Midrasha – everything from Western philosophy to Jewish spirituality. Some have even opened their own living rooms for such evening classes, as in the case of author Dror Bondi, who leads a study group on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
“We expect and invite our graduates not only to enjoy the content, but to create that content,” emphasizes Odelia Barkat, an Ein Prat graduate who now runs the Jerusalem Beit Prat. “The house on Hillel Street will be the open hub where members can meet during all hours of the day and continue the journey of study they started at Ein Prat.”
BEIT PRAT has the potential to become far more than just a place of study, but sioned by graduates of Ein Prat, B’Shvil, musters university students to educate high schoolers about various social issues in Israeli society, before the latter volunteer in their area as part of their school’s requirement for community service. Leaders of this project, headquartered in the Jerusalem Beit Prat, have already turned hundreds of Israeli teenagers into a more enthusiastic force of volunteers in their communities.
“We want to create echoes that will resonate way beyond our own community of graduates, into Israeli society at large,” Barkat confirms. “Beit Prat offers a rare opportunity for a dialogue without cynicism that tears down boundaries and artificial categories, and instead creates a common space where each is free to cast his own Jewish identity and add to the cultural wealth of our society.”
Ma’ayan Weizeman, a student of music and graduate of Ein Prat, puts it beautifully: “The excitement that people bring with them into this house creates an entrepreneurial vibe here. The electricity is bouncing off the walls. Everyone here has big dreams, both for Beit Prat and for Israel.”
Indeed the vision that Micah Goodman fosters for this growing, bustling community is to serve an important role in wider Israeli society, as a new class of moderate secular and religious Jews who have the capacity to be the natural link between sectors. “I am personally not so much led by a sense of crisis, as by a sense of great opportunity. Over the years I learned how many passionate yet moderate young Israelis there are who possess the motivation and the charm to be the bridge between ‘tribes’ and the bridge between us and our past.”
But when asked to put forth a clear agenda, Goodman politely declines. “Ein Prat is not a movement, and it has no clearcut statement,” he replies. “It is simply an open forum for a vibrant conversation. That conversation has the potential to become a national phenomenon, and our graduates have the potential to be true agents of change in that regard.
“As middle-of-the-fold people, they can expand the discourse way beyond the borders of Ein Prat and help us all as a society to rediscover and inherit the wisdom hidden in centuries of Jewish legacy, without erasing the wisdom of modernity.”
Goodman ends with a hopeful tone: “Ultimately, Ein Prat is not about changing its students, but about changing Israel through its students.”
Without a doubt, the energies that a visitor to 27 Hillel Street will find bouncing off the walls promise to add that much more light to Jerusalem, and to Israel at large. •
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