The European Cup basketball finals ended with Maccabi Tel Aviv’s incredible victory. But the wave of euphoria that swept the country skipped over the 15 students of the Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem. These friendly young people, who spend four months living in dormitory conditions while they learn about Judaism and Israeli culture, preferred to spend that exciting May 18 evening focusing on their Jewish traditional Lag Ba’Omer feast bonfire and engaging in a critical, interpretive examination of the holiday’s sources.
“I was actually being updated on the score every so often,” says Ariel Levinson, one of the program’s three founders, “and the students kept giving me strange looks. Not one of them was interested in the game.”
The students, on the other hand, try to mute the impression that they’re a bunch of squares. “It’s not a choice between basketball and Judaism. We’re not cut off from the world,” says Gal Cohen, a 22-year-old female student at the yeshiva. “I’m not necessarily the kind of person who is only interested in Jewish history or philosophy.”
Another student, Ori Ben Shalom, claims that I am idealizing them: “I also flop down in front of the TV to watch 'Game of Thrones.' We’re normal people.”
They both have a good laugh.
The successful TV series "Game of Thrones" is mentioned again, when Levinson gives his students a class about the Talmudic story of Rabbi Yochanan and his student Resh Lakish [Baba Metzia 84a]. It's a dramatic story, which not only includes an intimate relationship between a teacher and his student, but also a death in the study hall. “In ultra-Orthodox rabbinical colleges, they’ll either skip the whole story or teach it very cautiously,” Levinson says, “but in the Secular Yeshiva [non-Orthodox Jewish institute] we approach the story boldly, while talking candidly about sexual relations, narcissism and the passions of the sages.”
Alexa Yarmulov, a 22-year-old student, explains to her friend why Rabbi Yochanan wanted Resh Lakish to die: “It’s like in 'Game of Thrones.' He saw that the young upstart was gaining too much power, so he decided to eliminate him.”
The students in the yeshiva are a group of young people of the highest quality from across the country, from Haifa to Bat Yam, and from Kfar Vradim village to the Hod HaSharon suburb. Most of them have completed their military service. Some of them come from academic families.
As part of their studies in the secular yeshiva, they all live together in a big, beautiful stone house in the Jerusalem Ein Kerem neighborhood. They spend long hours in the “beit midrash,” their term for the yeshiva’s study hall, situated in Beit HaGat (literally, “the olive press,” a compound owned by Christians and managed by a nonprofit that promotes dialogue between people of different religions and cultures, and which also serves as a guest house).
Many people arrive at the yeshiva by word of mouth. Matan Lior, 24, says that he first heard about the secular yeshiva while attending a premilitary academy. Alexa was doing a year of national service in a kibbutz when “some people from the previous class came to visit and got me into it.”
There are, of course, certain prejudices that must be overcome. “My friends thought that I was becoming religious,” says Lia Amit, “but they also get excited about it when they come to visit me here.”
The students I met with are the sixth class of the program, which began in October 2011. There are two semesters per year (winter and spring). The first class consisted of 15 students, to match the number of beds in the three bedrooms of the dormitory area. “One of the participants was a young Catholic priest, who headed the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in the southern city of Beersheba,” Levinson says. “There was a young Circassian in the third class. We haven’t had an Arab student yet, even though we looked for one. In other words, the program is definitely not just for Jews.”
The yeshiva has already been forced to filter out a few dozen candidates in the current class. “We choose who comes here for the right reasons: to learn, to grow, to change. It’s not for people who heard that it’s cool.” The students pay 1,500 shekels (some $430) a month in exchange for an unusually rich program, which includes reading important texts in Hebrew literature, bold interpretations of Talmudic topics (in Aramaic!) and even looking into the Quran and New Testament. In addition to all that, the program includes tours of Jerusalem, attendance at various cultural events as a group and communal activities in the city.
The founders of the program — Levinson, Avishai Wool (both of them formerly religious Jews who became secular) and Nir Amit — make no secret of their goal of shifting the reality in Jerusalem. The capital of Israel has a negative image among young people, and many of them have left the city over the years.
“We realized that young secular people have no place to learn,” says Levinson. “They learn the Bible in high school, but not in a way that contributes to their lives in any way. They don’t study the Quran or the New Testament. They don’t get the tools they need to understand where we are living. At the same time, we wanted to create a program that would connect these young people to the city.”
Ever faithful to this goal, they began to produce cultural events for young people in Jerusalem, which combined parties with content. They organized a yahrzeit (a Yiddish term for the anniversary of a person’s death) at the Shai Agnon House, where were served vodka and kugel [traditional noodle pie], while reading texts by the Nobel Price laureate Agnon. “Our alternative Independence Day ceremony,” continues Levinson, “which took place in David’s Citadel museum, was attended by 1,500 people, including 1,200 young people. Like us, they felt that a genuine, content-driven celebration beyond the plastic hammers and foam was lacking. We wanted to create a statement for the younger generation.”
The Secular Yeshiva emerged from that same vision. Though influenced by the model of the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, it tries to pour secular content into it, while preserving what Levinson defines as the “DNA of Jerusalem.”
The three founders received the sponsorship of BINA (the Hebrew acronym for Workshop for the Soul of the Nation, which also spells the Hebrew word for understanding), an organization established by academics and educators following the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to connect secular Israeli society with its Jewish cultural roots. It receives donations from various groups (including the New Israel Fund, the Municipality of Jerusalem, etc.). The yeshiva’s annual budget is approximately 1 million shekels ($250,000).
“The yeshiva attracts people in their 20s, who feel like they are missing something basic: a young, secular life in Jerusalem alongside a search for meaning. Instead of doing that in an ashram in India, they do it here in Ein Kerem,” says Levinson.
The students at the yeshiva, however, have reservations about Levinson’s comment. “We’ve been to the East. We’ll go to university. It’s not as if we’re giving up on life. We came here for four months to open our minds,” they say.
“In school we studied the Bible, and from there we jumped straight to the Palmach [the pre-state Jewish paramilitary],” says Alexa, “but there were a lot of smart people in between those two periods.”
“The way we learn here is different from what happens in school,” says Eyal Harel, 24. “We don’t just absorb information for the test. We ask questions and have a discussion.” Gal says, “Sometimes we learn things that we already studied before, but we are exposed to them from a different angle here. We celebrate holidays every year, but now I know what I am celebrating.”
“There’s a powerful tide in life that sweeps you into a particular path,” say Guy Ostinsky, who, at 26, has a degree in cinema studies and is one of the yeshiva’s oldest students. "I want to look at it from the outside, before I get swept up. I need a break from the routine of spending 9 to 5 in the office and paying rent.”
“We don’t come here feeling like we’re empty,” Ori is quick to emphasize. “We want to enrich ourselves.”
The 15 students in the first class decided to stay in Jerusalem once they completed their studies. In the current class, plenty of hands go up when I ask who plans to live in Jerusalem. It turns out that the program changed their attitudes toward the city and even opened them up to new horizons and venues in their academic studies. But Guy tries to tone down the enthusiasm. “We see Jerusalem from a perspective that doesn’t really reflect the reality, because we spend all day learning, going to events and meeting with the different communities. Once we leave this program, we will also be exposed to the less appealing aspects of this city.”
“Obviously,'' someone responds. “That’s when life begins.”