|Secular Yeshiva Opens its Doors in Jerusalem|
|Written by Ruby Ong|
An infectious feeling of optimism emerged as 200 Israelis - a rare mix of young secular and Orthodox Jews in an increasingly polarized society - gathered at Bet Gat in the Ein Kerem neighborhood last week for the opening of Jerusalem's Secular Yeshiva. There was a sense that a new chapter was being written in this sacred city's rich religious history.
Ariel Levinson, one of Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva's founders, said, "The Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem has many aims. We want to offer courses that study Judaism within a pluralistic environment and strengthen Jewish identity. We also want to alleviate the cultural distress which is plaguing Jerusalem because of the Orthodox stranglehood. We believe Jerusalem is a city for all Israelis and all Jews and we want to stem the migration out of the city and attract new people."Jerusalem's Secular Yeshiva is the brainchild of Levinson and two other Hebrew Literature teachers – Avishai Wohl and Nir Amit – who set out to establish an institution where young Israelis could rediscover their Jewish roots and its relevance to 21st century issues. The Secular Yeshiva is supported directly by NIF and through NIF grantee BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture. Bina also initiated the Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv, which opened in 2006 following an NIF-funded study.
"We are starting activities in symbolically the most appropriate week following Parshat Bereshit," Wohl said during a series of lectures. "We are creating a model here which gives Judaism back to everyone and makes it accessible to all. The term Secular Yeshiva may sound contradictory but it is a positive friction which symbolizes the historic function of the yeshiva – learning through study, dialogue and argument."
Eran Baruch, Executive Director of BINA expects more Secular Yeshivot to open across Israel. He said, "There is an enormous demand from the grassroots for courses which look deeply into Judaism. We hope to open up a branch in Be’er Sheva and are planning to open one up in Haifa and then throughout the country, and perhaps even branches in the US and Diaspora."
Itai Tashtash, 24, from Holon, one of the students enrolled in the first Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva course said, "We have wandered too far from our Jewish identity. I know about the festivals and Judaism in a very superficial way and now I have an opportunity to deepen my knowledge."
Tel Aviv's Secular Yeshiva has expanded to 200 students involved in various full and part-time courses, and 500 students have studied there since its inception. Jerusalem's Secular Yeshiva has similar plans to expand in the coming years, and expects to fill a void in Jerusalem's cultural and educational scene.
NIF sees a strong connection between developing a pluralistic Jewish identity and the ongoing struggle to end the Orthodox rabbinical monopoly on Jewish lifecycle events. A cadre of young grassroots activists with strong pluralistic values is needed to change the current relationship between State and religion, and the Secular Yeshiva is an exciting and innovative model to promote this approach.