Products of Our Learning Environment

by Jonathan Maron

Elul is upon us and a new yeshiva/seminary/Israel programme year is beginning. Where are young Jews learning and why?

A Shabbat lunch picnic in a park in Baka is the perfect location for a discussion on G-d, Torah and Judaism. Baka is located in South Jerusalem, an area often described as an ice cream shop of Judaism; it has tons of flavours for you to taste before you pick one (or more) to enjoy. At this particular picnic sat two opposing parties – on the one side sat a young professional who had been in a Kiruv (Jewish outreach) seminary for women for the past six months and on the other side was a PhD student in archaeology who had established his Jewish belief system through his academic studies at university.

The conversation quickly fell onto the subject of the divinity of the Torah (note that the existence of G-d was never a talking point). Inside these ‘conversations’ each side usually argues to their heart’s content and rarely convinces the other to switch opinions. However, a more thought provoking statement came out of this ’discussion’. I’ll paraphrase:

Baalat Teshuva: “How can you be stuck in your ways when you have not seen the other side? You should go and study in a Charedi Yeshiva to experience real living Judaism.”

Academic: “I can’t learn from them and don’t want to. I’m happy with what I’ve learnt and the way I live my Jewish life.”

The academic had spent one year learning in a non-denominational, co-ed, halahic learning institute, while the Baalat Teshuva (BT) had taken a couple of non-regular classes there. For the BT, she had seen the Judaism of the Kiruv Charedi world and it appeared “real” to her, while the academic had seen the Judaism of a diverse community and it was “real” for him. The academic was turned off by the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle and how it viewed and interacted with the world, while a multitude of opinions coming from teachers and students seemed less fervent or even less serious to the BT.

I have been fortunate to interact with many Jewish communities and I have never seen a “real” living Judaism. Go to Brooklyn and see the Hipster Jewish streets close to the Chasidic streets or to Jerusalem and see the Kotel as a gathering point for every type of Jew from every country. Judaism is a way of life and is thus manifested differently based on environment and societal choices, bringing nuances into the fold, which for me is a wonderful thing. Each expression of Judaism has developed its way of teaching it and while there is much to be gained by learning from different Jewish ways of life, most people don’t have the time to go around from one stream to another to learn and process the teachings. With their limited time, Jews need to learn what is relevant for their lives in an environment that is conducive for them.

The BT had stumbled into a Kiruv seminary and her key exposure to strong Jewish life was thus defined for her. When making a choice of where to learn, however, we must keep in mind that we are the products of the society we grow-up in and live in. Our Jewish learning is no different. So as young Jews arrive in Israel to begin their ‘Jewish Experience in Israel for the year’ or ’year in yeshiva/seminary’, I hope they took a look at the products of their respective programmes and asked themselves one question “Do I want to appear like that in a year’s time?”

Jonathan Maron is a strategy, marketing and business development professional in Israel who made aliya from the UK. He has a passion for Jewish Identity and exploration of it and has thus worked with a variety of Jewish organisations in the UK, Israel and the USA.