Jaffa, Israel — It’s prime time at Israel’s yeshivas. Working men who have taken a bit of vacation to study, and full-time bokhers, pore over religious texts to get focused in preparation for the High Holy Days.
Intensive Torah-learning is a long-standing tradition during the Hebrew month of Elul, which ends the day before Rosh Hashanah. But it is a tradition that, until now, has had a following among only the most observant Jews.
This year, however, an Elul program that gets secular and religious Israelis preparing together for the High Holy Days has become a sensation — all the more so because it gets them ready by studying Shakespeare, Plato and Aristotle, as well as the Bible and Talmud.
When the Israeli Academy for Leadership launched its “Elul Program” three years ago, it received a good-as-expected 27 applications. But in the summer of 2010, after no advertising whatsoever, about 400 students registered to take part. The organization had to expand to four sites instead of operating just one, and still had to turn away 260 applicants.
“What I love about the yeshiva world is the passion: You walk into a yeshiva and there’s a wave of energy, but it’s only men and only religious people,” said the academy’s director, Micah Goodman, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem philosophy lecturer who developed the program. “Our dream was to create something that has the passion of the yeshiva and the diversity of the university.”
A week before Rosh Hashanah in one of the academy’s four locations — a squishy building in a bohemian Jewish-Arab neighborhood of Jaffa — the passion was on full display. Twelve students, six of them secular and six religious, were working in pairs through the week’s Torah reading, animatedly discussing the test and the themes it raises.
It was a far cry from the typical secular-religious dialogue session, which usually lasts a few hours. The 12 students — like those at the academy’s other locations — undertake to live together for the duration of the five-week program and study together all day, every day, from the early hours until midnight.
Eran Schechter, a 25-year-old Hebrew University student from Herzliya, said that before this year, “Elul had no significance for me” — an attitude typical of secular Israelis. Now, the month heralds “a very big experience.” Similarly, Michal Levim, a “traditional” 24-year-old Jerusalemite who is studying at Oranim Academic College, was marking Elul for the first time, and said that it has become a time of reflection “about Yom Kippur and the year ahead.”
For some students, the program wasn’t just their first encounter with the traditions of Elul, but also their first sustained encounter with Judaism. Before the program, Tamar Erez, a 22-year-old Hebrew University student from Amuka, near Safed, was “totally not familiar” with Jewish learning. She “didn’t have any connection with this world.” But partway through the program, she could be found discussing some of the finer points of a difficult passage in the Talmud with some of her fellow students.
The diversity of the backgrounds of those drawn to this stereotypically Orthodox endeavor was striking. Roni Levanon, 23, noted that she came from Kiryat Tivon, a northern-Israel village that is a stronghold for followers of anthroposophy. This was the “spiritual philosophy” of the Austrian intellectual Rudolf Steiner, who was fascinated by karma, reincarnation and the contribution of Jesus to humanity. Levanon was educated entirely at anthroposophic schools, and currently studies education in an anthroposophic academy. “I come from a very secular word and felt I need to explore my roots,” she said.
The religious participants in the program wanted to hear insights on the material studied from the likes of Erez and Levanon, not to change their ways. Sarah Dylon, 24, an Orthodox Jew from Rana’ana, said of her community: “A lot of people ask me questions like, ‘Are you teaching them how nice it is to be religious?’ I feel that just as I’m here trying to grow, I’m trying to open the eyes of my community that learning with people who are different isn’t just about making them like you, but it’s about creating something new.”
Goodman was keen to highlight the role of both religious texts and mainstream classics in the curriculum, explaining that he wanted students to explore “the greatness of our double tradition.” By this, he meant an often neglected tradition of Jewish interest in both Judaism and in secular study. Goodman is an expert on Maimonides, who famously had a broad grounding in secular philosophy — especially Aristotle, whose ideas are featured in his own writings. “For some reason, for years in the yeshiva world, people have learned Maimonides but not learned how Maimonides learned,” he commented.
It was this combination of intellectual traditions that attracted Levim. She found that Talmud, with its “associative” structure that jumps from topic to topic, became more intelligible for her when she employed the systematic approach she was learning in Plato — his penchant for questioning everything and trying to determine the philosophical system behind the text. Now, the Talmud’s approach encourages her to be more searching when faced with the structural “neatness” of Plato. “Behind the chaos there is order, and behind the order there is chaos,” she said.
In the context of a highly polarized Jewish society in Israel, Goodman regards the program, with its diverse student body, as a microcosm of what an ideal Israeli-Jewish society would look like, with Jews of different shades in conversation about their heritage. “It’s showing the real Israel what it could look like by showing it a better version of itself,” he said.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at email@example.com