Secular yeshiva: A workshop for nation's soul

BINA’s students discover that they can be committed secular Jews.

‘A workshop for the soul of a nation’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘A workshop for the soul of a nation’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When many people hear the words “secular” and “yeshiva,” they wonder how the two words can sit next to each other in a sentence – let alone grasp this is a reality taking place in Israel.
In south Tel Aviv, steps away from the central bus station, is the BINA center, where Jewish pluralism and social action collide.
It was established following the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, to tackle the deep gaps between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox in Israel. Seeking justice, peace and pluralism, the organization runs a gap-year program for students from around the world; a mechina program for Israelis; a MASA Tikkun Olam program where students can volunteer for five months; a postcollege program where students can come study and volunteer and an adult education program. Nearly 500 students are a part of BINA at any given time.
BINA means “wisdom,” and is also an acronym that translates to “a workshop for the soul of the nation,” a phrase from the poet Haim Nahman Bialik, whose work is studied at the center. “We have limmud [learning] together, and we study the text of an Israeli modern rock artist who has written a song or poem that is connected to songs of the first writers of Israel, like Bialik.
We are trying to show there is a new, secular culture,” says Nir Braudo, the recently appointed head of BINA’s secular yeshiva.
One of the founding members of BINA, Braudo later became the director of community initiative before moving to San Francisco as the World Zionist Organization’s emissary, before returning to his roots.
“The work that we are doing is something very new and in a sense, very old. Creating the option to be a secular Jew is not secular in the civil sense; it’s secular in the sense of being Jewish by nationality, by culture – but not by religion,” says Braudo.
“The reason it is so important, after spending time with American Jewry in the States, is something Zionist author Yosef Haim Brenner said: ‘Judaism is what Jews are doing.’ So if you look at what Jews are doing today mostly in the States, you find that the majority of the Jews are not religious. The parents and grandparents are still going to Reform and Conservative synagogues, but the kids are secular.
“So the option we’re giving them here is very relevant. We’re saying you can be a Jew, but a secular one.
It’s a very strong identity and very related to the Zionist idea.”
CEO Eran Baruch adds, “There are many young, secular Jews in the United States. They will be Jews by opinion, by friends, by study, by action – but most of them won’t go to the synagogue. So Judaism for them is secular.”
Braudo tells the story of how his grandfather left Belarus, to be part of the Zionist dream of leaving the old country where people studied Torah, to establish Israel and build a “new Jewish enterprise.” “They were building a new national state; they didn’t see Talmud in their life, or something important in it.
They wanted to build a new thing, so they had to destroy the old one.
Sometimes you have to destroy and build a house from scratch; that’s what they said and that’s what they did.
“The house is now very strong, secular and a democratic state. I see our role as building the second floor of it, and to have secular Israelis come study again Talmud, Bible, new Israeli culture, literature. All of those things are part of our Jewish library.”
One of the most important elements of BINA is not just learning about tikkun olam (“rectification of the world”), but practicing it.
“We see social justice as an internal part of our Jewish identity. We say it because we can study here, from these books, many aspects of it. From the Bible, the Talmud, the thinkers that came afterward... they saw that social justice and being a light unto the nations was part of their Jewish identity.
“We are purposely not in the center of Tel Aviv. We are near the [crimeridden] central bus station and tough neighborhoods, so the students can volunteer. They live here and they see the poor, the orphans, they don’t have to imagine it. They go out the door and see it, and can try to makeactions,” says Braudo.
Baruch knows the students are volunteering in the name of activism.
“There was a big dispute between the Mishna, Talmud on ma’aseh [action]… Rabbi Akiva said Talmud is greater. Studying is bigger because it leads to action. But I know that not every study leads to action; sometimes study prevents people from action. So we put the yeshiva in a place where they can see.”
When it comes to having students from abroad come to study or volunteer with the Tikkun Olam program, people worry that the location of BINA will turn them off Israel. Braudo sees it differently.
“To see the hard side, the real side, of someone in the dark and hard moments – this is real love and relationship. They are falling in love with Israel, the real Israel. It makes them very connected and some of them will make aliya, or some of them will bring the ideas from here to there, and that’s the real love.”
Braudo says solidarity is a fundamental part of their belief.
“We see ourselves as responsible for the Jewish people living all over the world. The Jewish organizations don’t see themselves as social action, they see limmud, praying.
We are doing both because they are very related. Social change, social activism and Jewish organization in beit midrash (“study hall”): We see it as one thing.”
The next step for BINA is to find the right partner and site for another yeshiva outside Israel – possibly in the US, or even somewhere like Budapest.
BINA also plans to involve the communities in both Tel Aviv and greater Israel, and allow people to sign up for short-term studies, thus endowing all with the opportunity to take part in learning and giving back to the world, just as the organization envisions.
Learn more about BINA by visiting its website: