Ways of pleasantness

Shapell’s marks 36 years of teaching essential Torah to 4,000 alumni.

Yeshivat Darche Noam/David Shapell College, colloquially known as “Shapell’s” (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yeshivat Darche Noam/David Shapell College, colloquially known as “Shapell’s”
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One floor below street level, in a quiet Jerusalem neighborhood, a small classroom fills with the sounds of 20-somethings wrestling with an ancient Jewish text. Their brows furrow as they discuss, argue, retrace their steps and argue again.
Like students in any yeshiva, they embody the old cliché: two Jews, three opinions.
One student wears the knitted kippa associated with modern Orthodoxy, another the black velvet common to more right-leaning yeshivot. A large white kippa with Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s name sits atop the head of another student, and still another wears a black hat.
This is Yeshivat Darche Noam/David Shapell College, colloquially known as “Shapell’s” – named after the Shapell family of Los Angeles, who are very generous donors to the institution. Many see it as an island of unity in an increasingly fractured Orthodox world. While many Orthodox yeshivot have a specific religious worldview and expect their students to fit into that mold, Shapell’s students are encouraged to find the path within the Torah world that best suits them, while also respecting other approaches to Orthodox Judaism.
Shapell’s alumnus Michael Freund – founder of the Shavei Israel organization and a syndicated Jerusalem Post columnist – explains that “as knowledgeable, observant Jews, we have a responsibility to our fellow Jews to be role models, to make Orthodoxy appealing, to turn them on, rather than off. There is too much factionalism today. We spend too much time obsessing over what kind of kippa a person wears. This is not the essence. We need to be focusing on the essence.”
The yeshiva takes its Hebrew name from a verse in the Book of Proverbs: “The Torah’s ways are ways of pleasantness [darchei noam], and all its paths are peace.” That verse isn’t just a slogan for the yeshiva; it’s a mission statement.
Dr. Daniel Polisar, one of the founders of the cutting- edge Shalem College in Jerusalem and its executive vice president and provost, first came to Shapell’s as a young Princeton graduate. He delayed his doctorate, opting to learn about Judaism in order to be able to “educate my children Jewishly.”
Polisar says that whatever he learned at Harvard and Princeton, “the place where I really learned how to analyze a text and how to study was Shapell’s.”
LAST MONTH, nearly 300 people packed the Jerusalem Gardens Hotel ballroom for a gala dinner kicking off Shapell’s 36th anniversary year. A full slate of events is planned worldwide, culminating in a second gala dinner in New York in November. The anniversary year is a celebration of the over 4,000 alumni who have studied at the yeshiva since its founding.
At the Jerusalem dinner, Anna Simon, one of three alumni honorees, echoed Polisar’s and Freund’s sentiments, referring to the institution as “nothing short of the Jewish home that provided us with the foundation to lead productive and meaningful Jewish lives.”
Simon, a noted social worker for Jerusalem youth who attended Midreshet Rachel, Shapell’s seminary for women, said that when she thinks about the education she got there, she is “so grateful for the constant message I received: that although you are a ba’alat teshuva [one who did not grow up religiously observant, but became so later on], ‘we believe in you to learn primary texts, we trust that you can figure out which stream in the Torah world fits you, and we expect you to do important things that contribute to the world.’” Fellow honoree Rabbi Michael Cytrin, educational director of Ramat Beit Shemesh’s Lev Hatorah Yeshiva, told the packed hall that he had originally come to Shapell’s seeking a yeshiva “where the understanding and outlook would follow smoothly and naturally from the close study of the texts, and not one in which the predetermined worldview already slanted the way in which we would read the text.”
According to Cytrin, “in other yeshivot, the rabbis have the exact same resume, studied at the same yeshivot, and you can take one quick look at their headgear and be able to anticipate with a fair degree of accuracy what they are going to say, before they say it. Not here. I needed a place where I could hear different voices and different views, argued eloquently and passionately, but respectfully.”
The third honoree, Rabbi Elie Silverberg, came to Shapell’s decades ago as a young student and became the first alumnus to join the full-time faculty. Looking out at the diverse crowd, he said that “even after over 20 years of teaching at Shapell’s, I never cease to marvel at the courage of these young people to take control of their lives and dedicate themselves to Torah and mitzvot. In almost all cases, this involves sacrifices – on many levels.”
THE SHAPELL’S approach imbues learning and thinking about Judaism with a certain self-sufficiency.
Indeed, many alumni gravitate toward leadership roles, and can be found in over 30 countries, making significant contributions to academia, government, the rabbinate, business, medicine, the arts and a host of other fields.
Among them are Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States; Allison Josephs, creator of the famous Jew in the City website; Scott Goldberg, Yeshiva University’s vice provost for teaching and learning; Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, founder of Jewlicious, which has changed the face of Jewish outreach in Southern California; Dr. Joshua Penn, founder of Diagnostic Partners, a pioneer in medical diagnostic imaging; Rabbi Matias Libedinsky, the driving force behind the revival of the Jewish community in Chile.
But the impact of Shapell’s alumni is perhaps most evident in Israel. Nearly 1,000 of them have made aliya. They live and work in every corner of the state; they have advised prime ministers, are forging new paths in education, lead significant nonprofit organizations, oversee programs in hospitals and write for major newspapers.
Virtually all of Shapell’s students enter as ba’alei teshuva. Typically Shapell’s students arrive after graduating college or having already developed a career. Most have not attended Jewish day schools, and come to the yeshiva with only a rudimentary background in Judaism, but they come looking for intellectual and spiritual substance. The faculty is determined to ensure that by the time they leave, they will be in possession of considerable training in the navigation of Jewish texts and the ability to integrate seamlessly into an Orthodox community.
Some would say the yeshiva’s success comes down to recognizing a shared Jewish destiny – that it is a place where the essence of Judaism is ultimately what matters. The kippot are beside the point.
The writer is a Jewish communal professional and co-author of Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope. He and his wife are at work on their second book, profiling the lives of American converts to Judaism who live over the Green Line.