Going back to the source

Just over a year ago, three young men founded the Secular Yeshiva of Jerusalem to promote Jewish textual learning together aimed at young people on the verge of beginning their “adult” life.

Limmud sessions (photo credit: yehoshua halevy)
Limmud sessions
(photo credit: yehoshua halevy)
The smoke of the previous night’s fires was still in the air on Lag Ba’omer morning, yet some of the people gathered on Mount Herzl said they felt they could breathe the pure, spiritual air of Torah learning as the first comprehensive Limmud event in Jerusalem kicked off earlier this month.
The organizers of the mass Torah study gathering had hoped for 200 participants, but by 11 a.m., it was clear that this was going to be a conservative estimate.
In the end, more than 350 people from all streams – religious, secular, young and less young, scholars and amateurs – came to participate in sessions that included spiritual experiences through music, dance and modern Israeli poetry reading, alongside small, intimate Talmud study groups.
Nadia Levene, one of the organizers of the initiative, couldn’t wipe the smile off her face. After days and nights of tremendous work, she apparently didn’t feel the fatigue in her excitement.
“I see Judaism as something that we should all love,” she said. “We all know there are these [issues with] segregated buses... but we take Judaism here as something everybody loves, and singing and being together.”
The success of the Jerusalem Limmud event (which the organizers modestly named “A Taste of Limmud”), did not occur in a vacuum. The Jerusalem Torah study scene has recently begun attracting the interest of a younger crowd that was not as involved in earlier attempts at pluralistic talmudic studies.
Beyond simply making Jewish texts secular-friendly, the increasing number of programs that do not require prior Torah knowledge and that incorporate modern Zionist texts are showing a growing appeal for the younger generation.
According to the organizers of some of the recent projects in this field, what is cropping up now are specific frameworks for youth. Some of these programs require an intense commitment of five months or a year, while others are only one- or two-day gatherings, but they all have a few things in common: They mix textual studies with music and theater, they offer an experience that goes beyond merely intellectual studies, and they often offer programs that combine study and community service.
This tendency is particularly apparent in three major projects: Limmud; the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva; and the Beit Midrash for Zionist Thought, which takes a yeshiva-style approach to studying Zionist texts.
While Limmud is the latest of these projects, the other two have only just passed (or are near to passing) their first successful year.
A private local initiative made a similar attempt to reach students about a year and a half ago, but didn’t last long due to a lack of funds and facilities.
However, it showed clearly that among the 22-28 age group – whether just before or just after the traditional trip to India that so many demobilized IDF soldiers take – there is an interest in studying Jewish and modern Israeli texts in a pluralistic setting.
Just over a year ago, three young men founded the Secular Yeshiva of Jerusalem to promote Jewish textual learning together with a spiritual experience, aimed at young people on the verge of beginning their “adult” life.
The three – Jerusalem-born Ariel Levinson, Nir Amit of Haifa, and Avishai Wohl of Karkur – are all in the field of education, all in their early 30s, all married; two of them are parents. They teach Bible and literature at high schools in the city.
“We all grew up in the Israeli education system,” says Levinson wryly. “We know it from inside, and that is why we feel we have to do some tikkun [repairs] here in regard to the crimes committed against Jewish thought and Jewish Israeli identity.”
The decision to open the Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem, they explain, was their answer to the negative image of the city, which has led many young people to leave it behind.
“There are quite a few venues for Jewish studies in the city, but we felt that none of them was able to answer the specific and different needs of the younger generation, and that is exactly what our yeshiva is doing,” says Levinson.
Within a few weeks, the yeshiva’s second term of study will reach its end. During each four-month term, some 15 young men and women, from all over the country, live, eat, study and do community service together while getting to know and love the city.
The program is specifically designed to go beyond an intellectual focus, and the combination of weekly guided tours of the city with community work – in close collaboration with the Yuvalim community center – gives the program the breadth its founders wished to achieve.
In addition, the students participate in and sometimes organize cultural events in different places in the city or in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood – particularly the weekly “hafla” (party) at the nearby Beit Hagat venue in Ein Kerem. At Beit Hagat, which has guest rooms and a large concert hall, the yeshiva students give and organize live concerts that anyone who wishes can attend, combining music, improvisation and studies into the night, to close the week before Shabbat.
“We put the emphasis on the Jewish Israeli identity,” says Levinson. “It is much more than studying Talmud or Bible. We also give courses on philosophy [Western and Jewish], literature, the best of the Zionist Movement founders’ thoughts, and also craftwork, creative writing, secular thought and culture. We also teach and study together ecopoetica – a new discipline that teaches us to live in harmony with nature [through reading and learning poetry on nature], and which also has roots in the Bible and our Sages’ teachings.”
The Zionist studies include courses – all given by scholars – on the contemporary streams in Jewish and Israeli thought, the challenges of modern life, and different political ideas.
“These young people are thirsty for such knowledge, of which they were deprived so far,” says Levinson. “The hole in their knowledge cries for both an intellectual and a spiritual experience. That thirst brings them to us.”
SHLOMI PERLMUTTER, the head of the Beit Midrash for Zionist Thought, says he is now seeing “a second wave of interest in Jewish texts, with a deeper connection to modern Zionist spiritual thought.”
As of this year, the Beit Midrash operates within the framework of the Jerusalem Institute for Zionist Strategies, which Yisrael Harel – scholar, columnist and a former chairman of the Council of Settlers in Judea, Samaria and Gaza – founded about seven years ago. The Beit Midrash has two tracks: The first, open to the general public (but with a clear emphasis on the 25 to 35 age group), involves bimonthly evening study sessions at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center; the second is a training program for young leaders at the Jerusalem pre-army (mechina) program in Kiryat Hayovel.
“We study all the canonic texts of the fathers of the Zionist movement, but we use the methods of the traditional beit midrash [house of Torah study], alongside the typical mix of religious-secular-men-women groups you can find in any pluralistic beit midrash today,” explains Perlmutter.
Asked if the topics tend to draw more right-wing people who wish to strengthen their political views, Perlmutter says that to the best of his knowledge this is not the case.
“On the contrary, I know that while we have people holding positions from both sides, many come from the left wing – they all have in common the deep understanding that we have to study these basic texts, in order to fully understand why we are here and what it really means for us to be Jewish and Israelis.”
The curriculum at the Beit Midrash runs through the major themes in this discipline. After an introduction to the main streams of Zionist thought, the students get to know the basic approaches of Ahad Ha’am (the Land of Israel as a cultural center for the Jews all over the world) compared to the Herzlian Zionist (as implemented by David Ben-Gurion) and the creation of the state.
“We introduce them to all the big names of modern Zionism,” continues Perlmutter. “[Ze’ev] Jabotinsky, [Martin] Buber, [Yosef Haim] Brenner, [Micha Yosef] Berdichevsky, [Haim Nahman] Bialik, [A.D.] Gordon and more. We want them to see how things developed over the last century, and we reach the present day, what these ideas mean and how they reflect in contemporary Israeli existence.”
The meaning of the Land of Israel then and today, the standing of the Diaspora versus the existence of a sovereign state – all these fundamental questions are asked, exposed and scrutinized through the texts that created them, and Perlmutter adds that these texts and the implementation of their ideas obviously fascinate the participants “to such an extent that they asked the management to add sessions and to make it on a weekly basis.”
According to Perlmutter, the encounter with these writings has also raised some sensitive practical issues, like the question of how to understand and react to journalist Peter Beinart’s recently expressed theories.
“There is a lot of questioning – for example, a comparison between Brenner’s attitude, which says that it is immoral to remain as guests in other people’s countries while we have a place of our own, no matter how well we may be treated, compared to the present Jewish American position, which sees Jewish life in America as a normal, legitimate situation – it was fascinating to see how these questions woke up passions among the students.”
When studying Zionist texts – as well as some parts of the Talmud – one cannot avoid touching on the question of our rights to the land, especially in the context of the Palestinian narrative.
Perlmutter confirms that these, too, appeared during the study sessions. “We... debated the justice and morality of our existence here while there is another narrative totally opposed to ours,” he says.
“We learned about the different Zionist answers to those heavy questions, and of course – perhaps I should say, above all – there was the question of Israel as a society of justice... the utopia of a society that lives according to the highest requirements of justice and equality, the birth of the kibbutz and Israel today – we touched on them all, and they still asked for more.”
AT THE Lag Ba’omer Limmud event, Levene directed participants to the venues inside the Herzl Museum as she spoke to In Jerusalem about how the event came to pass and what it entailed.
“I had this talk with some of my friends about an initiative [like this] last winter,” she recalled. “They all volunteered immediately...
but we still took the time to check a list of questions: Do we need it, is it going to work in Jerusalem, will people come, how are we going to get enough volunteers – nothing was clear or seemed easy.”
As it happens, the whole group of organizers met at the last Limmud session in the UK (in December), and Levene said she had been amazed to realize she’d had to go abroad to meet people who thought exactly like her: that Judaism was a perfect place to meet her own city-mates.
It turns out that this session of Limmud was not exactly the first one held in Jerusalem; Levene confirmed that there had already been two Limmud sessions for people from the former Soviet Union living in the capital, as well as one for Anglo residents. “But this time we wanted it to be for Israelis, no matter what their mother tongue is.”
Nevertheless, Levene and the rest of the organizers included several sessions in English in the program – about one for each five sessions in Hebrew – and there was a high number of Anglos.
Like the Secular Yeshiva and the Beit Midrash for Zionist Thought, Limmud Jerusalem included many topics beyond classical talmudic studies in the intensive one-day program. Zionism, multiculturalism, social justice, inspiration, gender, music – alongside Shabbat, Kabbala, Rabbi Nahman of Breslov’s teachings, and prayer.
“It’s broader than just textual learning,” said Levene. “We also have music and movement. Everybody here has their affiliation, but... at this Limmud, one can take off his affiliation hat, and open himself to new topics. There is a lot of openness here in Jerusalem, and it helps a lot.”
The event, she added, “is all about being Jewish.”
And of course, it aims to put this city back at the heart of efforts to reconnect with Jewish roots and life.
“It is the climax of a process where our goal was to bring about a change in Jerusalem’s Jewish culture,” she concluded before running to another session.