Tapestry of Jewish Life: Jerusalem Welcomes New, Niche-Driven Yeshivot

by Abigail Pickus

Ariel Levinson looked around his native Jerusalem and wondered with sadness whether there would be any secular youth left. With ultra-Orthodoxy tightening its hold over the city, and brighter, more attractive lights beckoning from cities like Tel Aviv or abroad, what could this ancient and holy city Levinson loved so much offer its non-religious youth to convince them to stay and make it their own?

“We decided to create a new group to lead this change,” said Levinson, a lecturer and PhD candidate in Modern Hebrew Literature at Hebrew University. So Levinson and two other educators created the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva, a cultural center where young Israelis can re-connect to their Jewish heritage and tradition.

More than a center, Levinson sees this new endeavor as an “anchor” to connect young Israelis to both their lost Jewish heritage and their lost city – since they have a rightful claim to both.

“We want to create a new Jerusalem,” he said. “Not a dead or a historical or even a religious city, but a vital one.”

The Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva is one of a host of new, niche-driven yeshivot – ranging from secular to religious and even environmental – that are popping up throughout Jerusalem, infusing life to the tapestry of Jewish options in the world’s holiest city. To add to the equation, many of these new yeshivot are leveraging social entrepreneurship skills to guarantee that their houses of study will be sustainable business enterprises, as well. Levinson cut his entrepreneurial teeth as a Fellow on PresenTense’s Community Entrepreneur Partnership (CEP), an intensive, six month program that through everything from seminars to a community of local volunteer mentors and coaches, gives participants the tools they need to turn their ideas into a viable business venture.

“We take our Fellows through a process from their vision – which we call the ‘Promised Land’ – to their final product. The process includes mapping out their project’s value, the competitive landscape and the creation of a business model. What is unique about PresenTense is that we teach our Fellows that they do not need to depend on philanthropy alone, and that’s where their business model comes in,” said Brachie Sprung, PresenTense’s Director of Israel Fellowships.

There are now CEPS running in 12 cities across the globe, including Boston, Moscow, Jerusalem and Philadelphia.

In five years, 155 ventures have been launched with the support of CEP, and of these, 73% are still active.

Such a high success rate has a lot to do with the practicality of the program.

“Ariel is a big visionary, but coming through PresenTense made him come down to earth. He had to ask himself what does this mean on the ground? Who else is doing this and how is my idea different?” said Sprung.

Levinson couldn’t agree more.

“I know how to teach and how to build an educational program, but I didn’t know how to keep the yeshiva running or to find the right resources support it,” he said.

After he had finalized his plan, he and his partners Avishai Wohl and Nir Amit turned to the Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, a yeshiva for young, secular Israelis based in Tel Aviv, to see if they would be interested in expanding into Jerusalem. Established in 2006, Bina is intentionally located in South Tel Aviv, the gritty neighborhood where many of Israel’s migrants have settled, because central to its mission is to combine social justice work with Jewish cultural studies. (All participants do some kind of volunteer work, often right in South Tel Aviv.)

Bina agreed to take on the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva as its Jerusalem branch.

“There is a real need to strengthen the non-Orthodox, non-Haredi population who are still in Jerusalem and to be able to offer them an alternative to take ownership of Judaism for themselves,” said Noga Brenner Samia, Bina’s Director of Programming.

Levinson builds upon that notion.

“It’s absurd that in Jerusalem, which is the center for all Jewish culture and where every different Jewish group has built its own center, there is no center for the secular public,” said Levinson.

Once the founders were ready to launch their Yeshiva last winter, they began with a splash through a series of events “celebrating Jewish texts” that were held in a variety of local cultural venues, including a discotheque. It was a success, with hundreds of young Jews attending who would otherwise not go near anything that smacked of religiosity.

In October, they opened the actual Yeshiva and welcomed its first 15 students, an equal number of men and women between the ages of 20-25 who are attending the four month program full-time. The students come from around the country – three are from Jerusalem – and live and study in Ein Kerem, a leafy, artsy enclave in Jerusalem famous for its old monasteries.

The curriculum is a combination of classes on everything from traditional Jewish thinkers like the Ramban and Rav Kook to some of the founders of Modern Jewish literature like Yosef Hayim Brenner, coupled with day trips around Jerusalem to learn about the city’s Biblical past, archeological roots, arts and culture.

After this year’s pilot program, the Yeshiva’s founders will take a few months to recruit and fundraise for the second year, with the goal of offering two four-month programs each year.

If the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva’s demographic are those outside the religious sphere, another new Yeshiva on the Jerusalem scene is reaching out those already in the fold.

Yeshivat Talpiyot – formed by a group of Jerusalemites who have one foot in the religious world and the other in academia – is a place for Jews to study traditional texts in traditional ways, but in a more modern, pluralistic context.

“We all live in Jerusalem, a place that fortunately has been going through a renaissance for liberal and egalitarian religious Judaism,” said the Yeshiva’s Founder and Director, Shoshana Cohen, a Master’s candidate in Ancient Jewish History at Hebrew University who studied in the Matan Advance Talmud Institute and who teaches at a variety of local yeshivot. “ At the same time, we also have some extremely educated Jews teaching at a variety of local institutions but there wasn’t a center where all of these people can come together and study.”

To meet their own needs, Cohen and a group of fellow religious and academic cohorts met up regularly for over a year to study Jewish texts. What they discovered was that they “really had a common language and something unique to Jerusalem that they can offer to the rest of the world.”

They decided to name their center Yeshivat Talpiyot both because of the neighborhood of Talpiyot, where it’s located, and also because that is the nickname for Jerusalem in the Talmud, according to Alieza Salzberg, one of the Yeshiva’s founding members who serves as its educational director.

“How does a liberal academic critical perspective mix with a religious values perspective?” asked Salzberg, who is pursuing a Master’s in midrash at Hebrew University. “In Israel, there are a lot of great programs for secular Jews who want to go back to their roots in a very cultural and historical way, but this left a gap for the liberal religious life we want to live in Israel. There is a very large gap between the secular world and Shas and the Rabbanut (official rabbinic establishment) who have the right to set the religious tone in this country, but what if you want to live feminist democratic liberal values and you are not part of the secular sector? We felt this Yeshiva is a way bring those all together.”

Before they launched, Cohen, too, honed her idea and entrepreneurial skills as a PresenTense CEP Fellow.

“One of the most meaningful and extremely helpful lessons was how the program made us feel that we are not necessarily in competition – that we all can work to change the world together,” said Cohen, who also sought advice from the New Israel Fund – Shatil. Yeshivat Talpiyot launched its pilot program from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies building last September with a month of intensive, all-day learning during Elul. They drew 12 students to the initial course, half men and half women from a variety of religious backgrounds.

“It was extremely successful,” said Cohen. “We did the whole thing on a shoestring thanks to a group of very committed teachers and volunteers who organized the whole thing.”

They aim to run the Elul program again next year. Now Yeshivat Talpiyot is running an evening program once a week that draws over 30 students and they are planning several special learning weekends. While Cohen and Salzberg happen to be originally from the U.S., Hebrew is the language of instruction at the Yeshiva.

The goal is ultimately to open a full-time yeshiva.

And the deeper goal is to add another, much needed voice to the religious conversation in Israel.

“The Israeli religious establishment allows for one voice that is really loud, but our Jewish sources, especially the Talmudic texts, are not like that. They are full of differing voices. I think that studying Talmud can equip people to listen more carefully and that is what we are trying to teach our students: to listen and speak and to change the conversation in the Israeli religious establishment,” said Cohen.

If these two yeshivot are geared towards Hebrew-speakers, a new incubator for Jewish Educational Entrepreneurship for English speakers, which is  called, Threshold, is also opening in Jerusalem.

And like the other educational “start-ups” this one was created in response to a real and pressing need: The lack of employment opportunities for Anglo Jewish educators and rabbis. “We realized there was this big issue where people were coming to Israel and were going into Rabbinic training or Jewish educational training, all hoping to go into the field of Jewish education, and the only problem is there are no jobs for Anglos in the educational system,” said Frayda Leibtag, Fellowship Coordinator for Threshold.

To compound the matter, those who are already seasoned educators, like rabbis from the U.S., don’t fare much better.

“There are positions that exist in America, but don’t exist here like working as a community rabbi. So in the States, a rabbi who was considered a superstar and who encouraged his congregants to make aliyah, might himself make aliyah only to find he can’t work in his field. He might find himself unemployed in Israel, jumping from job to job, and feeling really stuck. This situation is leading a lot of people to leave Israel because there just aren’t a lot of work options available here for Jewish educators,” said Leibtag.

That’s where Threshold comes into play. The new venture aims to “create a culture of innovation in the field of education to give rabbis and educators the tools they need to create sustainable, viable projects in Israel so that they can stay here and work in their fields,” according to Leibtag.

The six-month fellowship will launch in January 2012 and has already hand-selected its first 12 Fellows.

Under the auspices of HaOhel, Threshold is “powered” by PresenTense, which means it is partnering with PresenTense just like JCC’s and Federations across the globe where the Fellowships are run, and has tailored its Fellowship to fit its participants needs.

“Threshold is a new pilot for us because they represent a ‘neighborhood fellowship,’” said Sprung, since PresenTense has an existing Fellowship in Jerusalem and Threshold is also based in Jerusalem in the neighborhood of Nachlaot.

What separates Threshold from the other CEP’s is that they are a “niche fellowship” that works only with English-speaking Jewish educators.

The admitted Fellows who will be announced at the end of December represent all streams of Judaism and have either an idea for a specific program or an existing project. In January, they will embark upon an intense course that includes everything from seminars and group sessions to experiential learning, all guided by a community of volunteers, including coaches and mentors.

Change is, indeed, underway in Jerusalem. With the arrival of so many yeshivot and other ventures – a blossoming happening across the globe, as well – Jewish life is becoming transformed.

“If in the past change was dictated from top to bottom, we are living in an era where change is happening at the grassroots level,” said Sprung from PresenTense. “Today, we are seeing empowered people who feel they can make important changes from the bottom up, which makes that change that much more powerful. Suddenly, it feels like it’s a real community movement.”