Secular yeshiva in J’lem launched at ‘learning party’

Initiative aims to create spiritual and cultural institution to supply knowledge, tools to those seeking to understand secular Judaism.

Secular Yeshiva 311 (photo credit: Eyal Tagar)
Secular Yeshiva 311
(photo credit: Eyal Tagar)
Talpiyot’s Ha’uman 17 club was the setting for the capital’s first “learning party” on Sunday night, when the Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem nonprofit group held two scholastic sessions and one ensuing dance party deejayed by none other than rock star Berry Sakharof.
Some 300 people thronged the club, which has become a symbol of secular nightlife in the holy city, for the group’s inaugural event.
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The initiative by three local young men – Nir Amit, Ariel Levinson and Avishay Wohl – aims to create a spiritual and cultural institution in Jerusalem that will supply the knowledge and tools to those seeking to understand secular Judaism. The founders hope the place will be up and running in Jerusalem by September 2011.
“It all started from study evenings held in my home,” Wohl said. “Once every few months, we’d get together and have a guest lecturer give a lesson on issues the secular yeshiva will be dealing with, with a perspective that differs from that of Orthodox Judaism.”
These sessions helped Wohl and his cofounders realize the sincere thirst among secular people to “conduct a systematic inquiry into their Jewish identity.” Their yeshiva aims to provide an appropriate setting for this, with four-month program targeting people in their 20s.
The yeshiva would address issues pertaining not only to the teachings of secular Judaism’s spiritual fathers, such as Yosef Haim Brenner, Micha Josef Berdyczewski and Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg), but also to the Bible, Aggada (non-halachic texts in the Talmud and Midrash), and Jewish and general philosophy, Wohl said. The Talmud will also be part of the curriculum, but not from a legalistic perspective.
“Our rapport with Judaism is not with the religion as a method,” explained Wohl, who also teaches at the Tel Aviv secular yeshiva Bina.
“We understand that within Jewish culture, there is a wealth of inspiration and that we as Israelis, living here and now, need a bond to a multifaceted Judaism.”
Wohl asserted that “Judaism doesn’t have to be based on Halacha.”
“Now that we have a state, its law is a firm enough framework,” he said. “But an Israeli youth should know about the Halacha, how it works.”
A taste of what might be expected in the planned yeshiva was offered in the lessons taught Sunday night by Levinson, whose session explored Hanukka, Judaism and idolatry through segments by Ahad Ha’am and Berdyczewski. He was followed by Hebrew literature expert Dr. Ariel Hirschfeld of the Hebrew University, who conducted a secular reading of the Song of Songs. Sakharof then took to the turntables to play the music for the dance party that followed.
Both Hirschfeld and Sakharof are an active part of the Jewish renaissance in secular arts and culture.
Besides the study curriculum, the yeshiva will have a “Jerusalem” orientation to it, including touring the city, meeting its residents and volunteering to help those in need.
Wohl assumes the institution will mainly attract people from a secular background, but says it is open to anyone who wants to know “what secular Judaism’s say actually is.”
“Instead of going to the Chabad house in India for answers, they can come to us,” he said.