Meeting God in the middle

A secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv offers Judaism without requiring strict observance.

Secular Yeshiva 88 224 (photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
Secular Yeshiva 88 224
(photo credit: Mya Guarnieri)
Say the words "secular yeshiva" to most Israelis and they'll scratch their heads. A secular yeshiva? What does that mean? The words shouldn't appear so close to each other in a sentence. Maybe they shouldn't be in the same sentence at all. And yet, a secular yeshiva exists. Adjacent to the Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv sits a small, nondescript building, unremarkable in this area of bland buildings, save for its warm golden-peachy hue. But this building is truly remarkable... it is Bina's Secular Yeshiva, the first institution of its kind in Israel. Bina, which means "wisdom" in Hebrew, is an organization that seeks to breathe new life into Jewish identity at the very time that identity seems to be struggling for air. Bina hopes to bring together the many pieces of Israeli society by using Jewish texts and values as the uniting element. Furthermore, Bina recognizes that many young Israelis are completely alienated from Judaism - making up a large fragment of Israeli society that is deeply fissured from its Jewish roots - and seeks to help repair this rift through education and social action. The Secular Yeshiva, and its location in south Tel Aviv, is a vital component of Bina's work. Inside, on a breezy, radiant spring morning, Israeli students sit in havrutot (study groups) - some on the over-stuffed bright blue couches in the classroom and hallway, some at tables in the library. In their small groups, they read and discuss the Talmud, the continuous click-click-click of the Central Bus Station's turnstile drifting in through the open windows, punctuating their lively conversations. This is the second year of Bina's Secular Yeshiva, and 150 students study here on a regular basis. The group is diverse - composed of pre-army Israeli students, post-army Israeli students, Jews from the Diaspora, all from varying backgrounds and varying degrees of secularity The texts are diverse, too - ranging from the Talmud, to Hebrew poetry, to Jewish philosophy, to Zionist thought, to Tanach. Teacher Lior Tal brings an even broader range of texts to the table, including the writings of John Locke, Adam Smith, as well as capitalist theory. "I believe in the kind of dialogue between texts," he says, "it's important to bring something from the Talmud, some Jewish philosophy, Marx... and show how they connect to one another." He elaborates, saying he's teaching subjects, not specific textbooks, and that he makes sure to bring texts - both Jewish and not - that represent different perspectives. What do they all add up to? They are all intended to bring the idea of social justice to life. Hence the yeshiva's south Tel Aviv location. The director of the Secular Yeshiva, Tal Shaked, says, "We chose to be in south Tel Aviv. It's not a coincidence that the Tel Aviv Municipality gave us a building in this area. It's important for us to be in south Tel Aviv to see what's happening around here. It's a very tough neighborhood. When you sit on the balcony and study tzedaka (charity) and see homeless here, it [the text] gets translated into reality." But social justice and action aren't the only reasons the students are here. Shaked continues, "They choose to come here because something is missing. They're going through a journey that is very personal and they're asking themselves identity questions. We don't want to be a movement. We want to give them a space to ask themselves questions about Jewish identity. The average secular young adult never asks themselves about Jewish identity, which is very, very basic and very important to the building of this country and is common to the people who live here. We really want young adults to be connected to their culture in an intellectual and cultural way and in a moral and values way. We're trying to create a generation of young adults who feel at home in Jewish texts and culture and will be involved in Israeli society." Shaked says that the students are free to stay secular, but are encouraged to find a way to have Jewish culture to be a big part of their lives. This is a story Tal can relate to. "For me, Judaism as a culture is very important," he says. Born and raised in a traditional family, Tal attended religious schools. After high school, he became an atheist and adopted a secular lifestyle. "In my 20s," he recalls, "I was in a search for my secular Judaism." Many of the students here are on a similar quest. "Their Jewish identity goes through radical and important changes," he says. "They have to confront questions they've never confronted." Like the dialogue between the texts they study, the answers the students come up with aren't simple. Indeed, a picture emerges only when you step back and listen to the chorus of voices at once, together, as a whole. Michal, 26, is in the post-army group. She studied Psychology and Cinema for her bachelor's degree and sitting on a couch in between classes, she looks oh-so-Tel-Avivian: an elegant silver stud in her nose, the sides of her auburn hair pulled back from her face, her bangs accentuating her eyes. She wears grey leggings, simple ballet flats and a colorful blue, green and white plaid tunic. "It's the first time I stopped and looked at my Jewish identity," she says about her studies at the Secular Yeshiva. But engaging with the issue of her Jewish identity has not yet made things clearer for her, "I still don't know what Judaism means to me. I don't have the answers. I have ideas." For Michal, it's a dynamic, fluid process - the more she studies the Jewish texts and the more she examines her Jewish identity, the more she feels the connection between the two. Regarding her family and friend's reactions to her decision to study at the Secular Yeshiva, Michal chuckles, then says, "They are worried I'm becoming religious, but they've seen that nothing has happened apart from me asking more questions and thinking more about basic issues." Although her practice of Judaism hasn't changed and she doesn't keep any of the mitzvot, Michal is not eager to affix the secular label to herself, saying "both definitions are hard - secular and religious." Michal feels that the Secular Yeshiva offers a "sane option" - a safe place for exploration, where people can find their place within the common continuum of Judaism. For some students, this space and opportunity for discovery means that they increasingly find themselves in a gray area. Shlomit, 22, is part of the Israeli post-army study group and makes the trip from her home in Jerusalem to the Secular Yeshiva twice a week. From a religious home, she feels that she is unique in that most of her classmates come from a secular background and continue to define themselves as thus. When asked how her Jewish identity has changed since beginning her studies at the Secular Yeshiva, she says, "It made me more religious. I'd turned away from it. Then I came here and I saw people so secular and I felt like, 'No! Hang on to your Jewish roots!'" Before studying at the Secular Yeshiva, she says, "I hated the things that Judaism represented. But here, it's not all about conquering Israel and dressing up funny." Although she is looking at her religious upbringing with a fresh eye - "Now I'm going back to my roots from another perspective" - she says she still won't define herself as either secular or religious. Shlomit feels that she will forever be in a murky area, the space between these two terms. Meanwhile, finding herself amongst so many Israelis who embrace the secular label, Shlomit continues to question how she fits in, "I don't feel quite at home. I'm not ready to say 'I'm secular and this is my Judaism.'" Despite the fact that Shlomit's shoulders are bare, a classmate teases her: "Dossit," Gal says, using the colloquial term for an observant Jew. They both laugh. Gal, 21, explains that she comes from a "very secular" background. Her far-flung family - with members in Uruguay, Argentina, and Spain - includes Christians. "So, I ask different questions [about Judaism and Jewish identity] from Shlomit," she says. She continues, saying that the Secular Yeshiva includes "too much Judaism for me. It's in the center of everything [here] and in my house it's not." She shrugs, "We're Jews because we're born that way." However, Gal is reconsidering her Jewish identity, "When I came here, I came here to study [Judaism]. Now I see that it's a part of me." Engaging with the texts and conversations at the Secular Yeshiva has sparked a life-review for Gal. She understands now that many facets of Israeli culture are rooted in Judaism - her studies at the Secular Yeshiva helped to illuminate those connections for her. Now, as she sifts through her memories, she is acknowledging Judaism's place in her life and she is seeing the deep influence it has had on her - whether she wants it or not. When these two very different girls with very different backgrounds are asked if the Secular Yeshiva represents any sort of reconciliation between the religious and secular elements of Israeli society, they give a resounding, "No," in unison. "Well, we agree on that," they both remark and laugh. There's one more thing the girls agree on - the location of the Secular Yeshiva is crucial. "It takes the values of being Jewish, being Israeli, and makes them alive," Shlomit says. If there is an embodiment of everything that the Secular Yeshiva stands for then Gil, a member of the pre-army group, is it. The pre-army group is a Bina-affiliated program. The participants live in the neighborhood, studying at the Secular Yeshiva three and a half days a week. They spend two days a week turning their studies into action by volunteering in the neighborhood with a variety of different groups. Gil is a firm believer in Bina and Shaked's stated goal of translating the Jewish texts into social justice. He finds the volunteer work compelling and says he feels very connected to the children he works with. "The social work Bina does is extremely important to the area," he says. He feels that Bina is an arrowhead, "aligned with a vast cultural change going on in Israeli society regarding Judaism, Jewish culture, and secular culture." In respect to the changes within himself, Gil says, "Before I came here [to the Secular Yeshiva], I had an entirely different concept about my Judaism. I refused to regard myself as a Jew because I don't believe in God." Although, he is still secular and atheist, now "I really believe in Judaism as a culture," he says. "If Judaism is a culture, it has nothing to do with religious belief. There are a lot of things we can take from Judaism and relate to our lives and our society." Metro poses two questions to Gil: What about Jewish society outside Israel? What about Jewish peoplehood? Gil pauses, his face a picture of thoughtfulness. It is clear that he is taking the topic seriously, and his answer reflects his care: "The oxymoron of the Secular Yeshiva is exactly where the Jewish people are." Want to learn more about Bina and the Secular Yeshiva? Visit their Web site at