New-generation visionaries

A Jerusalem-based secular yeshiva ushers in a different take on Jewish identity and Israeli culture.

Students of Jerusalem’s Secular Yeshiva pose for a photo in the village of Ein Kerem. (photo credit: ARIEL LEVINSON)
Students of Jerusalem’s Secular Yeshiva pose for a photo in the village of Ein Kerem.
(photo credit: ARIEL LEVINSON)
In the midst of the idyllic Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Kerem lies an apparent paradox.
Breaking the stereotypes associated with traditional Judaism, it infuses excitement, youth and fresh perspective into a religion that to many seems closed off and archaic.
Normally, the words “secular” and “yeshiva” represent two completely different worlds, a multitude of opposing ideals which can never be reconciled. Yet the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva, seeks to challenge the notion that yeshivot are exclusively for the religious, and that secular individuals cannot be connected to Jewish culture.
Founded in 2011 by educators and social entrepreneurs Ariel Levinson, Avishay Wohl and Nir Amit, with help from madrichot (counselors) Michal Sternbach and Shani Ostreicher, the yeshiva, which conducts all lessons in Hebrew, has grown from a small, idealistic dream to full-blown phenomenon, attracting a stable flow of passionate students to its four-month intensive study program, and up to 1,500 people to cultural and educational events.
The founders all hold teaching degrees from the Kerem Institute, albeit in a range of studies. Wohl holds a BA in biblical studies and comparative literature from the Hebrew University; Amit, a BA in Hebrew and comparative literature; and Levinson holds an MA in Hebrew literature and Jewish studies. He is a PhD candidate and lecturer in the Hebrew University’s Hebrew literature department.
Before starting the yeshiva, the three noticed a few disturbing trends permeating youth culture in Israel. The first was the resistance to and utter lack of knowledge of most young Israelis toward anything Jewish or Israeli. They found that although schools teach traditional Jewish texts and Zionist literature, the students learn it only minimally in order to pass a test, rather than taking it seriously as an essential cultural, historical and ethical piece with potential to play an active role in day-today life and overall identity.
Far from Jerusalem being a city that only caters exclusively to the religious, the founders wanted to show that secular Israelis can benefit from formulating a strong Jewish identity – one that is rooted in the philosophies of modern secular Jewish thought while at the same time looking at traditional Jewish texts such as the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, prayer book and Kabbala for knowledge and spiritual growth. Moreover, they felt that the development of a thriving young pluralistic community in Jerusalem would be mutually beneficial for the city and the young residents themselves.
Gili Gutwirt, who studied at the yeshiva in 2013, notes, “There was no definition of right or wrong. For the first time, I could simply absorb knowledge and take what I wanted from it. All previous programs I’ve been a part of, whether the army or a youth program, had a bottom line or a goal they wanted to reach. This was simply an opportunity to learn and experience without a bottom line. You have the world at your hands to explore, be critical and see what you want.”
This unique ideology of freedom and knowledge is a key part of the yeshiva’s programming. Sitting comfortably in a circle sprawled out among ample plush pillows, a mixed group of men and women sit discussing the prophets with great interest and enthusiasm. Students ask intellectual questions, genuinely expressing the desire to push boundaries, question and learn.
Though this is not a scene typical of most yeshivot, it is apparent to any outsider that something truly special is happening within these walls.
For Levinson, the yeshiva’s added element is that, by being open to students from different backgrounds, it is encouraging people to live in Jerusalem and “play an active role in city life and become cultural change agents.”
A testament to its avant garde nature, the first class took place at a nightclub in Talpiot, but today it has grown to include extensive four-month learning programs, summer sessions, cultural events, alumni events and a full-fledged Hebrew language curriculum encompassing Jewish, Islamic and Christian texts, secular Jewish literature, poetry, music and art – a program that is intellectually stimulating, diverse and meaningful. As a result, while the majority of students are Israeli Jews, they have also managed to attract students from other ethnic and religious backgrounds.
The three founders worked on the curriculum for two years prior to the opening of the yeshiva, and are constantly adapting it based on the needs and suggestions of students. It is a member of BINA, the largest secular Jewish renewal organization in Israel, with support from the Jerusalem Municipality and the Yuvalim Community Center.
The yeshiva employs both religious and secular staff. Students learn Halacha and halachic discourse, yet are not pressured to observe it as absolute authority.
Instead, they are encouraged to think critically, add modern context and individual thoughts, and even create their own relevant halachot.
Levinson explains, “We offer students a secular perspective. They do not need to be religious, yet they still can remain connected to Judaism through participation, interpretation and ownership of Jewish texts and culture, connected to the time and place in which they live… We hope to create a new language of secular Jewish identity and offer a model of innovation and cultural activism that can inspire young people to create similar programs, connect to Jewish culture and become a part of Jewish history.”
BUILDING ON its base as a learning institution, cultural activities open to the community are also a large part of the Yeshiva’s programming. Hafla is an event which occurs every Thursday night and features live music, speakers and performances based on Jewish culture, held at various locations throughout the city.
The yeshiva has also held a variety of successful holiday events such as small workshops in cafes and bars, special happenings in the Tower of David, a Hanukka candle-lighting party, and a 12-hour Independence Day celebration which brought in approximately 1,500 people. “We offer a new approach to Israeli identity that can reconcile past and present, and is active in shaping the future,” says Levinson.
Gutwirt adds, “In Israel, our education system is cracked. We learn the ancient history of the Jews in Israel until the destruction of the Second Temple; we do not learn very much about the Jewish experience in the Diaspora or the Arab narrative. So, in a way, this experience helped to reveal the obvious… In addition, the experience also helped me to define my beliefs. For the first time, I was fully comfortable defining myself as a feminist.”
Despite its seemingly controversial subject matter, the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva has not experienced significant backlash from more extreme factions within the Jewish community. In fact, many haredi individuals have even come to visit the yeshiva out of curiosity, and have not actively opposed its existence, whether through riots or negative press. Furthermore, the yeshiva even holds occasional study sessions with ultra-Orthodox men and women, providing hope for the possibility of reconciliation and understanding between these two estranged communities.
Social projects also play a role in the yeshiva. Students participate in community gardening in Ein Kerem.
Another social project in the making is the compilation of a book titled Sipurei Hashechuna (Neighborhood Stories), which collects stories from elderly neighborhood residents, creating historical and personal links to the area as well as a bond between the aged and youth.
This project has been particularly meaningful, as it brings life to the elderly residents, making them feel they are an integral part of the community; at the same time it creates an everlasting attachment to the city, its people and culture.
“Jerusalem may offer one of the most pluralistic scenes in Israel. It has dialogue between the East and West, is home to various religious denominations and was built on both religious and secular ideals. We seek to create a conversation, keep them exposed to all that Jerusalem has to offer and let them see for themselves Jerusalem in the 21st century. Unfortunately, Jerusalem has a reputation among Israelis as being an extreme, violent place. We want to expose another perspective.”
Thus far, the program has seen tangible success in creating a passion for the Holy City. According to Levinson, 99 percent of yeshiva participants are originally from outside Jerusalem, but the majority of them choose to call this city home long after the conclusion of the program.
“I spent a year in Jerusalem volunteering in Neveh Ya’acov, and that is when I fell in love with Jerusalem,” says Gutwirt. “However, my time in the Secular Yeshiva strengthened this relationship, because it allowed me to explore new parts of the city, get a deeper look at things, think about them and feel.
As a result, my love for Jerusalem was not just in my head and heart, but also through knowledge and logic.”
Gutwirt, who now works as an assistant to city council member Rachel Azaria, says the yeshiva helped develop his understanding of Jerusalem’s history.
Indeed, with its unique and thoughtful approach to Judaism and dynamic contribution to the rebirth of scholarly secular discourse, the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva is adding a much-needed breath of fresh air to the city of Jerusalem and Jewish cultural life. Finally, non-observant Jews can own their religion, their country and their history in a way that is meaningful and practical in their everyday lives.
Rest assured, with the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva’s help, this new generation of youth in the capital will be anything but passive.