Wake-up call

Pluralistic batei midrash help Jerusalemites of all stripes return to their roots.

alternative studies (photo credit: Courtesy)
alternative studies
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Over the past decade, a growing group of educators who identify with a pluralistic and cultural approach to Judaism have branded the 10 days between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day as a period of national awakening, where participants in a series of study sessions learn and debate as they search for solutions to the various problems that plague the State of Israel. "We wish to emphasize the point that there is no reason for despair," explains Moni Mordechai, one of the main organizers of the events, which are in their fourth year. The idea is rather simple: Those who have discovered the appeal of studying Talmudic and other Jewish texts in a social justice framework will bring their friends, who, in turn, will hopefully join the growing movement and ultimately, help "things change here," Mordechai says. The profile of a typical student at the dozens of pluralistic and egalitarian batei midrash (study halls) scattered all over the country is well known: Ashkenazi descent, well-educated, affluent, secular and without previous significant ties to Judaism . As Ben-Gurion University Prof. Haviva Pedaya says, "Israelis of Mizrahi origin have never locked the Jewish books away in a cupboard, or thrown its key into the sea, and therefore have less of a need for those batei midrash." Mordechai agrees with her assessment, but adds that this is not the whole picture of a diverse movement: "You have the people of 'Mimizrah Shemesh,' created by young Mizrahi university graduates from the less privileged areas, who decided to preserve the traditions from home, together with their education and commitment to social issues. "On top of this, you have of course the renaissance of piyutim [liturgical songs of the oriental Jewish communities], which creates an additional tie between all the participants. And when you see the ever-growing numbers of people coming to these events, you certainly cannot feel despair," Mordechai explains. Pluralistic batei midrash are no longer an unusual feature of our national landscape. In addition to the major centers that dot the country, dozens of ad-hoc study halls have sprung up, and they all more or less pivot on the same principle: The study of Jewish texts in an open environment. What binds the often motley students is their love of Judaism, and the desire to celebrate and renew its traditions. "But all the batei midrash have another thing in common," adds Mordechai. "The understanding that it is in our hands to better our life here." "We have created a network for the batei midrash," explains Roni Yavin, the executive director of Elul, the first pluralistic beit midrash created in Jerusalem. "It is a coalition of all the institutions. And I believe that our next step will be to create a program of training facilitators for the study groups, because it is not exactly teaching and not exactly moderating. Actually, I believe it is a really new profession emerging here, which needs to be carefully taught." Yavin is aware that although there are growing numbers participating in these events, it is still a small movement. "People [come] who already have the feeling that they are looking for something different; it's a kind of captive audience. But still, we also reach others, who are not scholars or graduates from universities, and we see the little miracles occurring - the joy of studying can be kindled in any place." The network, Midreshet, organizes the 10 days of reflection and learning twice a year: During the Days of Awe and atonement between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day. The former is designed around religious-cultural themes and the latter around national, cultural and social issues. Both periods of learning are, according to Yavin, efforts to deal with the most essential questions of contemporary Israeli life. The heads of the pluralistic batei midrash share the same concern: How to spread word of the events and maintain the high level of quality without compromising their open atmosphere. The texts studied are carefully chosen to meet the ideals of the institutions. They deal with questions such as how to live in harmony with your neighbors, how to avoid cheating in business, or how to turn charity into a natural habit. In other words, how to help someone, secular or observant, become a better person, without being bound to a certain group or religious stream. "The connection is through our Jewish roots, outside the religious limits and requirement, but still in the framework of our Jewish tradition and heritage," explains Yavin. "The connection between this and social engagement is not obvious, but obviously, it is there, for in all the batei midrash, it works." For Yavin and her colleagues, "Something is undubitably moving, and in the right direction. People feel the urge to study ancient texts, to think about what they study and to draw conclusions regarding their life and their surroundings." Once people decide that they do not wish to study Jewish texts through rabbis or academia, "the way to the pluralistic beit midrash is paved," Yavin explains. "For there, they also have a unique encounter with people they would otherwise never meet or be able to talk to." The theme of this year's "national awakening" program is "Awakening and Jewish Renaissance as a Tool For Social and Cultural Change." In addition to gathering diverse participants around study and debate, the events will also feature Jewish music and liturgy, including groups who study and sing piyutim. Elul's learning session took place on Sunday, April 16, at the International Cultural Center for Youth on Rehov Emek Refaim. Academic heavyweight Dr. Meir Buzaglo, MK Yossi Beilin and author Dr. Aliza Lavie, as well as singer Hanan Yovel and kanun (Middle Eastern zither) player Elad Gabbay were among the event's participants. Perhaps the best way to describe the expectations and challenges of pluralistic batei midrash would be in the words of Benji Maor, from BINA, the Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture in Ramat Efal. "I would like us to become like the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel: Not everybody goes there, but everybody knows it's there and it's an address for all," he says.