Judaism for all

Texts are no longer the exclusive domain of Orthodox Jews, but are accessible to anyone who wants to study them.

Ruth Calderon
The video of the maiden speech of Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon, in March 2013, became viral within a few hours. Not very surprising, considering that for the first time in the history of the Knesset a woman chose for her first official speech to teach a short segment from the Babylonian Talmud.
Calderon, smoothly moving from Hebrew to Aramaic, cited a sweet story from the Talmud and mesmerized the audience, including the Knesset speaker of the day, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, who, forgetting for a minute the context, added his own remarks to Calderon’s comments.
The sight of Calderon holding a volume of the Talmud in her hands, a secular woman and yet highly educated in Jewish texts (she holds a PhD in ralmudic studies), was perhaps a revelation for many MKs and others, but for thousands of Israelis, religious, traditional and secular, who have for some 25 years now been enjoying studies of Talmud and other Jewish sacred texts in pluralistic and open facilities, Calderon’s speech was not surprising.
These texts are no longer the exclusive domain of Orthodox Jews, but are accessible to anyone who wants to study them.
Calderon was the person who, 26 years ago, founded Elul, the first secular-pluralistic beit midrash (Jewish study hall) in Jerusalem, where men and women, religious and secular, of all ages, could meet, study together and regain possession of the Jewish texts and the joy of learning together, beyond the usual boundaries of religious/nonreligious.
Today, there are more than 90 such facilities, as pluralistic study halls and army preparatory classes take up the trend.
Being one of the first initiators of this movement, Calderon, as a new MK, tried to find budgets to fund these classes, but managed to reach only a one-time budget that same year. She was not elected in the next Knesset, but education minister Shai Piron (also of Yesh Atid) managed to include a small amount of funding for that purpose, allocated for “Jewish renewal,” in the education budget.
Months later, Piron was out of the political scene, and the new education minister, Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) – who had never said anything against the idea to fund these projects – kept it inscribed in his ministry’s budget, but the money never reached any of the institutions.
At Panim, the federation of over 60 organizations that advocate Jewish, Zionist and pluralistic views (including the study groups), the monitoring of the lost budget has not shown any results thus far. The budget for 2015 was NIS 8.2 million, and for 2016, NIS 7.8m. – but none of the money has reached the dozens of batei midrash or army preparatory classes.
In Jerusalem, where the whole process started more than 26 years ago, the problem is as tough as in the rest of the country, but with one difference: Rashut Harabim, the forum of pluralistic Jewish organizations of Jerusalem, has managed to achieve a modest but significant victory. It is entitled to a small budget from the municipality, as promoters of Jewish culture and Torah studies. The sums do not fully cover expenses – hence all the courses and studies require a rather high contribution in tuition from attendees – but at least a first step has been taken.
Batei midrash in other cities are learning from the Jerusalemites, and are applying to their own city councils to obtain the same status as did the capital’s Rashut Harabim.
It is important to emphasize that not all the institutions included in Rashut Harabim are treated equally. Some of the institutions, such as Gesher and the Hartman Institute, which are both doing extensive work in introducing hundreds of people to the knowledge of Jewish texts and studies, are well-established bodies that can rely on their own budgets.
This is not so in the case of Elul, even though it was the pioneer in this field. Participants in its classes are required to pay, and stipends are very rare.
Objections to the whole Jewish renewal movement come from many sources – not only from haredi benches, as could be expected (mostly because the classes are mixed), but also from the religious-Zionist sector, which would prefer to allocate the money to less pluralistic institutions or to its own institutions promoting Torah and Talmud studies.