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Tuesday 11 December 2007

Studying with Tel Aviv's 'unorthodox' yeshiva

Studying with Tel Aviv's 'unorthodox' yeshiva
By Benji Lovitt December 02, 2007

Webster's Dictionary defines 'yeshiva' as "an Orthodox Jewish rabbinical
seminary". A walk into any classical yeshiva reveals an intensive study
environment of Hassidic males, clothed in the traditional uniform of
slacks, white shirts, and a yarmulke head covering.

However, in Tel Aviv, known much more for its hedonistic culture than
religious observance, a group of young, secular Jews are doing their
part to rewrite the dictionary altogether.

In its second year of operation, Tel Aviv's BINA Secular Yeshiva is the
most recent project of the BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew
Culture. Eran Baruch, the yeshiva's founder and executive director sees
it as a vital step in a process to connect secular Israelis to Judaism.
Baruch, having grown up with a strong connection to Jewish tradition and
culture, yearned to bring the values of social action found in Judaism
to the daily lives of Israelis, the majority of whom lead secular lives.

"After the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, I felt that
something was fundamentally wrong between the religious and secular
communities in this country, "said Baruch. "The way that secular
Israelis see their connection to Judaism needs to change, to
strengthen." It was then that he decided to create the BINA Center, a
gathering place for Jewish study and seminars in a pluralist environment.

A few minutes inside a BINA classroom shatters many conventional
thoughts about what yeshiva learning means. Men and women congregate
together in modern, fashionable dress, most of the men without
yarmulkes. But to see only that would miss the point.

"The purpose is to make Judaism part of our daily lives from a moral and
cultural perspective, not halachic (according to Jewish law),"
headmaster Tal Shaked told ISRAEL21c. "Judaism belongs to everyone, not
just the religious community."

A former prosecutor for the District Attorney's office, Shaked notes
that BINA's approach to learning does not constitute a religious
movement such as orthodox or reform Judaism, rather, it gives students
the space to learn and choose their own personal level of religious
observance. Ten groups are currently studying at BINA, including a
pre-army group, two groups of the Nachal army unit, and one group of the
Zionist youth movement, Shomer Hatzair. While the amount of study
differs in each program, all include a social activism component.
This value originated from both Baruch and the entire staff of BINA,
first manifesting itself in the organization's BINA B'shchuna (in the
neighborhood) program and again in its 10-month Tikun Olam (Repairing
the World) program for college graduates from abroad. "Being Jewish
means to take care of and be responsible for the community and to have
solidarity with the people around you," Shaked said.

The need for social services in the dilapidated area of south Tel Aviv
explains the location of the yeshiva, a stone's throw from the city's
central bus station. One group the students assist is the growing
population of Asian immigrants, who have been brought to the country as
a workforce. BINA students spend time tutoring foreign teens in the
afternoon while their parents are working to support their families.

According to BINA's director of development Simone Farbstein, to fully
understand a secular yeshiva first requires understanding what secular
Judaism means in Israel.

"Secular in Israel is not like secular in America. In the US, if you
choose not to be Jewish, you can lose your identity. Here, you don't
have to deal with your identity because it's obvious you're Jewish...
even if you don't know anything," said Farbstein. "It's not obvious that
people will care about their Judaism anymore; it's important for
Israelis to be knowledgeable."

This vision to bring Judaism to the masses permeates the entire faculty.
Lior Tal, one of the teachers at BINA, grew up in a religious family but
fell in love with Judaism as a culture. Tal explained that, as opposed
to what Diaspora Jews might think, Israeli children in public schools
are lacking a fundamental knowledge of Jewish texts.

His goal for the yeshiva is to start a revolution so all Jewish texts
will be relevant, ending ignorance among Jews of their own religion.
Similar to Orthodox yeshivas, much of the study is done in a chevruta, a
pair of students who read a passage before discussing it aloud between
themselves. This mechanism, especially as employed by BINA, facilitates
personalizing the texts and finding meaning in their own lives, rather
than sending a message that "the Jewish authorities say this."

What makes the curriculum special at BINA is that the lessons do not
stop with the Jewish texts. Students may learn about cultural Zionist
Ahad Ha'am one day and European philosopher Immanuel Kant, the next. The
idea behind this diverse experience is to give the students a
well-rounded education and the ability to make social change among all
types of people with varying identities and levels of observance.
On Yom Kippur, students came together to study and designed their own
holiday prayer book and service. This spiritual activity lay in stark
contrast to the traditional secular Israeli commemoration of the Day of
Atonement, when many people spend the day watching rented movies or
cycling on the streets.

"Studies in other places feel distant; here we are in it. We study from
the Talmud and see how it's still relevant to our lives," said Michal
Shamay, a BINA student who has deferred her army service one year to
study. Like Baruch, Shamay was raised secular. While she and her family
do celebrate the Jewish holidays, they do so as cultural rather than
religious experiences. After this year of study, she will be fulfilling
her army service in the IDF's education department, teaching new
immigrants Hebrew among other responsibilities.
What lies ahead for Israel's first secular yeshiva? Shaked dreams of the
day when BINA is known not as "the secular yeshiva," but the "Tel Aviv
yeshiva," to differentiate it from the large number of secular yeshivas
she envisions across the state of Israel. As for enrollment, she hopes
to double the number of students before moving into a larger facility.

Finally, the BINA staff looks forward to the yeshiva being recognized
with the shiluv status granted to religious yeshivas, allowing students
to study for two one-year periods which breaks up, but does not take
away from, their normal army service commitment. Former defense minister
Amir Peretz approved their request, but the yeshiva is still navigating
its way through the bureaucratic process.

Farbstein's ultimate message is a simple but poignant one. "Don't NOT be
a Jew," she stated. "It's our past and our future"


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