‘Secular Yeshiva’ answers young Israelis’ questions


Ofri Bar-Am, 19, folds her legs underneath her on a library couch and peers closely at a photocopy of the biblical passage describing the oldest recorded case of sibling rivalry in history, Cain and Abel.

A student at the first secular yeshiva in Israel, Bar-Am underlines phrases, scribbles notations and promptly dives into a psychological and theological discussion with her study partners about the story’s layered meanings and relevance.

“Cain’s whole purpose seems to be trying to please God, and when that doesn’t happen he breaks down and kills his brother,” she said. Pointing out a puzzling phrase she asks, “What does it mean? How did this happen?”

Bar-Am is part of an incoming class of 30 young, nonreligious Israelis who, like her, are combining study at the secular yeshiva with army service. A total of 150 students are attending classes here.

The Secular Yeshiva of Tel Aviv, which receives funding from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has students divide their time between studying Jewish texts and volunteering in economically disadvantaged areas of south Tel Aviv, where the yeshiva is located. There they do informal education projects with local elementary school students and after-school programming for them.

The goal is to give young, secular Israelis an education that will show them that they too have a rich culture to tap into and explore. Like many Israelis, young and old, those that come to the yeshiva know little about Judaism and feel alienated from religion, which they view as the domain of the ultra-Orthodox.

There’s no expectation or even intention for religious observance to follow.

Instead, the yeshiva’s founders hope students will gain an appreciation for religious pluralism and a desire to fuse their newfound knowledge of Judaism with work for social justice and human rights.

The yeshiva is a project of BINA, the Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, sponsored by the United Kibbutz Movement. The organization hopes to strengthen pluralism and democracy in Israel by focusing on the humanistic aspects of Judaism.

“One of the reasons for the secular yeshiva is to counter the mindset of the opposition to Judaism as only a religious concept. We are here to give a different answer,” said Tal Shaked, 33, a former lawyer who serves as yeshiva head.

“I want to see people who are more socially minded, so the study is based not just on analyzing texts but seeing how these ideas can be applied as individuals and as members of Israeli society,” she said.

About half of the 30 students currently studying ahead of their army service pay tuition and follow the yeshiva model of studying from early morning until late at night, studying in pairs known as chevrutas.

The other half combine their yeshiva studying and volunteering with odd jobs to support themselves.

Organizers hope to win official recognition from the government as a combined yeshiva-army program, a type that exists in the Modern Orthodox community and receives state funding.
Another group of post-army students also combines study with work and, like the others, lives in communal apartments in the Shapira and Kiryat Shalom neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.

Eventually the plan is to be able to accommodate some 500 students. There are teachers from the three main streams of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.

The yeshiva receives funding from the New Israel Fund, the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, as well as from federations in Los Angeles and New York. It reflects a trend in recent years of secular Jewish Israelis seeking a stronger connection to a heritage muted by the founders of the state, who preferred to detach Judaism from Zionism.

Several centers have opened in Israel that have begun to introduce Jewish text study to a secular audience. This yeshiva, however, is the first seminary of its kind in Israel.

“I think Israeli society has paid a price for Zionism’s attempts to cut out religion. It has created an identity crisis,” said Ariel Nitzan, 18, from Kibbutz Lotan, who will be doing a half-year of work-study at the yeshiva before joining a combat unit in the army, then returning for a period to the yeshiva.

“I feel like I’m also doing something for national security, but from a different point of view,” Nitzan said. “I’m dealing with the question of Jewish identity and contributing to social justice on some level.”

Dana Ben-Asher, 19, said she was always interested in Jewish topics but on Kibbutz Dorot, where she grew up, the focus was on socialist Zionism, as it is at most secular kibbutzim.

“We would build a sukkah and would ask why, and all the answers would be about pioneers and the importance of being Israeli,” she said.

The yeshiva students complain that in high school they were taught the Bible as a dry, impersonal subject.

Avigail Graetz, 30, a playwright and teacher who gives a course at the yeshiva on sibling relationships in the Bible, grew up in Israel’s small Conservative movement.

“They don’t even notice how they peel the layers back,” she said of her students’ astute analyses in her course.

If you start discussing the Bible per se, you can turn them off, she said “but when you talk about siblings in general they bring themselves into the text, and it’s beautiful. Their interpretations, their broad conceptions are so enriching.”

Graetz said the approach to study is not about “right or wrong. We aren’t doing it for halachah, and we don’t come from a place of ‘God knows better.'”

Over Yom Kippur, dozens of yeshiva students and their friends gathered at the community center in Tel Aviv that is the yeshiva’s temporary home. There they listened to commentaries and did group study and personal reflection.

Ben-Asher said it was the first time she had marked Yom Kippur in any kind of meaningful way.

Class Notes – National Nachas for Shalhevet


Shalhevet School is on a winning streak, bringing the Los Angeles yeshiva high school to national prominence in the areas of ethics, politics and sports.

Shalhevet is the only Jewish school and the only school in Los Angeles included in a national report on how to produce students who are not only intelligent, but have a sense of moral maturity.

The 14-year-old high school is one of 24 schools from across the country included in “Smart and Good High Schools: Integrating Excellence and Ethics for Success in School, Work and Beyond,” a 225-page report recently published by State University of New York College at Cortland.

Researchers spent time at Shalhevet to observe how it builds character in its students — for example, through its weekly town hall meetings and moral discussions that permeate the classroom and extracurricular activities.

“In a ‘Smart and Good High School,’ all things in the life of the school — routines, rituals, discipline, curriculum, co-curricular activities and unplanned ‘teachable moments’ — are intentionally utilized as opportunities to foster excellence and ethics,” the report reads.

Two seniors from last year, Leor Hackel and Sara Hoenig, served on the National Student Leaders Panel for the study.

Shalhevet also chalked up a win in Yeshiva University’s Model United Nations, where about 40 Jewish high schools faced off in debates on issues such as the crisis in Darfur, how to define terrorism and providing nutritional support to alleviate the HIV crisis in sub-Saharan Africa.

Shalhevet’s win continued a long Model U.N. crosstown rivalry with YULA High School, which came in second. In the last five years Shalhevet has placed first twice and YULA three times.

Phu Tranchi, adviser to the 14-member Shalhevet team, notes that aside from spending many hours preparing, students hone their persuasive abilities at town hall meetings.

And, Tranchi added, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we have great overlap between the Model U.N. and the drama club — they can really get up and put on a show.”

The same can be said for Shalhevet’s Lady Firehawks, who won first place in the Hillel Community School invitational basketball tournament in Florida last month, where teams from Jewish high schools across the country competed. This was the second consecutive year that the Lady Firehawks won the tournament. Tamar Rohatiner, a Shalhevet senior, won tournament MVP.

Sun Strong for Camp Ramah

Camp Ramah in Ojai will be getting some new d├ęcor atop the Gindi Dining Hall this summer — about 250 photovoltaic panels to generate enough solar energy to cut the camp’s energy bill by about $30,000 a year.

This is phase one of a three-part project that will eventually save the camp up to $75,000 a year and will reduce toxic emissions by approximately 15 million pounds of carbon dioxide, 37,800 pounds of nitrous oxide and 121,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide over the 50-year life of the installation.

The camp received a $500,000 gift from alumnus David Braun to begin construction on the $1.3 million project. Camp Ramah expects reliance on solar power to insulate tuition against future energy cost spikes.

“By both using and educating about solar energy during future encampments, we believe we will create generations of Jewish leaders who are environmentally conscious and who will seek to move more and more Jewish and non-Jewish institutions to environmentally friendly energy options,” said Ramah’s Executive Director Rabbi Daniel Greyber.

Greyber has been working with Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) to obtain IRS approval of a strategy to offer nonprofits the same tax incentives currently given to for-profit companies to build solar installations.

For more information about Camp Ramah or the solar energy project, call (310) 476-8571.

YULA Girls Face History

Facing History and Ourselves, a Boston-based organization dedicated to teaching morality and tolerance through the study of the Holocaust, will hold a seminar for teachers this summer at the YULA girls’ school. The five-day workshop will be geared toward, but not limited to, teachers at Orthodox schools.

“What I hope people come out with is a better way of teaching about this history and also a way to help students think about their own participation in the society in which they live,” said Jan Darsa, director of Jewish education at Facing History.

The conference runs June 25-30 and costs $500 for the first teacher and $400 per teacher after that. Applications are due April 15. For more information, contact Jan Darsa at (617) 735-1613, or visit www.facinghistory.org.

Jewish Peace Corps

Looking for a great summer experience of hard physical labor and few amenities? American Jewish World Service, an organization dedicated to sustainable development, will bring 16- to 25-year-olds to Africa, Central America and Asia to engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world, in the most literal sense.

The seven-week program couples intense physical work — building schools, water systems, homes and agricultural projects — with Jewish study and community experience.

The program is open to high school juniors and seniors, and adults 18-25. The application deadline is March 31. For more information, contact Sonia Gordon-Walinsky at (800) 889-7146, ext. 651, sgw@ajws.org or visit www.ajws.org.

Prejudice Awareness Summit

More than 300 middle school students from area public and parochial school participated in a Prejudice Awareness Summit at the University of Judaism (UJ) last month. UJ undergraduates led the younger students in exercises that encouraged honest and open dialogue and allowed them to explore their own feelings about prejudice. Workshops focused on reducing harmful actions and developing techniques to resolve conflicts. For more information on the summit, call (310) 476-9777.

 

Israel, N.Y. Schools Drop Weinberg Suits


Yeshiva University (YU) in New York and a Derech Etz Chaim yeshiva (DEC) in Israel have settled a lawsuit sparked by allegations that a former California rabbi made sexual advances toward students.

The settlement, which allows YU students to get credit for taking classes at DEC, closes one avenue through which to answer 20-year-old questions about whether Rabbi Matis Weinberg, who now lives in Jerusalem’s Old City, might have stepped over the line from a nonconformist educator to an alleged sexual predator.

YU unceremoniously cut ties with DEC last year when allegations arose about about Weinberg’s behavior toward a young man currently in Israel and about Weinberg’s tenure at Kerem, a boarding yeshiva he founded in Santa Clarita in the late 1970s.

Some critics believe YU is overcompensating for historic lapses in the Baruch Lanner case, when Orthodox institutions had for decades covered up his sexual and emotional abuse of teenagers (Lanner’s 2002 conviction for abusing girls in the high school is being appealed).

The dispute between YU and DEC ended earlier this month when the parties agreed to drop a suit and countersuit in Federal Court in Manhattan, where DEC had sued YU in June 2003 for cutting the school out of its Joint Israel Program, which allows YU students to enroll in yeshivas in Israel.

YU countersued DEC for "utterly failing to protect" its students, most of them post-high school students from the United States, from the accused rabbi.

The agreement, which came after a harsh rebuke from the judge when near-settlements failed because of disagreement over wording, drops both suits and states that students can apply for YU credits for their time at DEC. It does not reinstate DEC into the Joint Israel Program, which would allow students already enrolled in YU to take classes at DEC.

YU cut ties to DEC in February 2003 when allegations arose that Weinberg, whom YU claims was a figurehead at DEC, allegedly made sexual advances to boys at Kerem 20 years ago and to a young man in Israel last year. Weinberg denied any wrongdoing, and DEC, which claims its ties to Weinberg were tenuous to begin with, terminated the weekly class Weinberg gave soon after the allegations arose.

While Weinberg had no official role at DEC, his students founded the school, and his sons and many of his students teach there.

The case also went before a panel of rabbis in New York last May. The panel collected testimony from alleged victims, then sent the case to a beit din (rabbinic court) in Jerusalem. The beit din in Israel chose not to pursue the case.

While rumors have circulated that some alleged victims are planning to sue and that Interpol is investigating the matter, no such suits or investigations have been verified — proof, Weinberg supporters say, that he did nothing wrong.

Weinberg has many supporters in Los Angeles, mostly students he mentored in the 1980s at Kerem. Those students are convinced that the allegations against Weinberg are a cruel vendetta against a master educator whose only crime was refusing to conform.

"I believe that Rabbi Weinberg is a good, wholesome person and I do not believe any of the allegations against him," said Rabbi Ari Heir, director of the Jewish Studies Institute at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who is among a group of community leaders in Los Angeles and elsewhere who attended Kerem. "I think that 99 percent of what is going in is that people didn’t like him anyway because he’s an iconoclast, and people in the Orthodox world don’t like an iconoclast."

Heir and others who called The Jewish Journal said that Weinberg was affectionate and physical in his highly personal and effective pedagogical method, but never inappropriate.

Reports in the New York Jewish Week last year paint a different picture, where victims alleged that Weinberg stepped over the line and made clear sexual advances. Most of those allegations are from Kerem students, and one mother alleged that Weinberg behaved inappropriately with her son, who was a student in Israel (not at DEC) last year.

Many were looking to the beit din and to the trial court to either clear or condemn Weinberg’s reputation, but now both those avenues have been closed.

It is not clear whether or where this case will be pursued next.

DEC, meanwhile, hopes to get its program back off the ground. Before the controversy, the yeshiva had about 45 students, a number that dropped precipitously this past year. But Rabbi Aharon Katz, dean and founder of DEC, said with the settlement, students have already started enrolling and he is expecting about 30 boys next year.

Much Moola for New Look at YULA


For Rabbi Marvin Hier, the new $12.6 million YULA (Yeshiva University of Los Angeles) boys’ school building gives him both a feeling of pride and a twinge of envy.

"This is a dream come true, but I am also absolutely envious that they can have a building like this," said the dean of both YULA and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "When I went to yeshiva high school and elementary school, we never had first-class science labs like this, or a building like this. This is really a dream."

Hier founded YULA in 1977 as a modern Orthodox yeshiva high school that had the dual goals of producing Torah scholars and college-prepared high school students. The school has two separate divisions — boys and girls — and today, there are about 170 students in each. The boys’ school is famous in the yeshiva world for its athletics. "The basketball team is notoriously good," said Michah Danziger, 15, a YULA 11th-grader. "And the track team is not bad either."

"We win all the championships," Hier said.

Although most YULA students come from modern Orthodox homes — in fact, religious observance is a condition of acceptance into YULA — the school’s Jewish studies staff tends to come from the ultra-Orthodox sector of the community. "Most of the teachers are more to the right than the students are, but I assume that in any school the teachers are more religious," said Rabbi Osher Klein, a rebbe at YULA. "In every school the staff has got to be on a higher [religious] standard than the students."

Klein also noted that YULA students graduate with a strong communal identity. "The overwhelming majority go on to Israel to learn in yeshiva," he said. "Even in the high school, all the leaders in the NCSY [National Council of Synagogue Youth] are from YULA, and the students play an important [role] in Etta Israel and B’nai Akiva."

The new boys’ school building comes at the end of an erratic campus history. The school started in two wings of the then-Simon Wiesenthal Center building, but quickly outgrew the space and took over the Rambam school building, which was located on the current YULA property. "It was a horrible facility for a high school," Hier said. "It was never meant to be a high school, and the kids were studying in trailers."

Last year, the students moved to a building across the street from the Wiesenthal Center, while the new building was being built. Three weeks ago, YULA students returned from their summer vacations to go to school in the new building.

"People would always say the Wiesenthal Center looks so nice, but look at the old yeshiva building — they are in trailers," Hier said. "Finally, we are able to say that the yeshiva doesn’t have to be embarrassed in front of the Wiesenthal Center."

The building is a state-of-the-art, 44,000-square-foot, three-story structure, with two science labs, lecture halls and classrooms equipped with televisions that are hooked up to computers so teachers can broadcast their notes.

A key feature of the building is the beit midrash (house of study), furnished with imported chairs and tables from Kibbutz Lavi in Israel. The beit midrash has 24-hour security and is open to people who want to learn Torah after hours. It has a library stocked with 4,500 new sefarim (Jewish books), and on Shabbat, the room is used as a synagogue.

In addition, there is another beit midrash in the school, which was built so that Sephardic students would be able to express their culture. On Shabbat, that beit midrash will be used for a beginners’ synagogue service.

But providing this level of facilities does not come cheap. YULA’s school fees are in excess of $15,000 a year.

"The fees are expensive, but it is only because there is no choice today," Hier said. "I am not blaming anyone, but we don’t receive outside [governmental] support. But we also give out a lot of scholarships — we give over $1 million of scholarships a year."

The next stage in YULA’s expansion plans is to build a $2.2 million, 10,000-square-foot gymnasium, and then in February, construction begins on the new girls’ school building. "We want kids to be able to learn in an atmosphere they find pleasing," Hier said.

Education Briefs


New Yeshiva for Learning Disabled and GiftedStudents

Rashi Hebrew Academy, a new yeshiva for learning disabled and gifted children, will open Sept. 3 at Congregation Shaarei Tefila on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. The school is accepting students from different backgrounds, but is maintained within an Orthodox framework. “We are targeting children that are going to public schools or are in yeshiva schools and cannot completely cope with the rigors of the regular yeshiva day school because of a variety of learning disabilities,” says Jack Rose, administrative director and gifted program coordinator. “They deserve a Jewish education.” The new school is open to both boys and girls ages 8 to 12 and will offer full general studies and religious studies programs. The yeshiva is also sponsoring an after-school homework help program, which will be open to students from other schools, called the Rashi Hebrew Academy Homework Center. For more information on Rashi Hebrew Academy, call (323) 938-1251.

Parents, Schools Communicate WithPACE

A number of local Jewish day schools have begun using Partnership for Academic and Community Excellence (PACE), a new school-to-home communication system, which allows administrators to pass on urgent school-related messages to parents more quickly than ever. For over a year, PACE, a Westwood-based company, has enabled school principals to create personalized recorded announcements that are transferred to all parents, if needed, by telephone.

Schools have used the service in a variety of capacities: to remind parents of upcoming events, to track attendance, to communicate school closings and to report emergency information.

“More schools are using it for safety purposes like a flu epidemic, updating your emergency contact information,” says John Gamba, PACE’s director and co-founder. Some day schools are using the system to reach the temple community to give High Holy Day information, bereavement reminders and information on upcoming rallies.

While the service is available nationwide, most PACE customers are in Southern California. Eileen Horowitz, the head of Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, says the system has made a difference in event attendance.

Jewish Youths Find Common Ground

During the new school year, four L.A.-area synagogues will work together for the second year in a row in a program called OLAM Shel Machar (formerly Machar). Eleventh- and 12-graders from B’nai David-Judea (Orthodox), Temple Emanuel (Conservative), Temple Beth Am (Reform) and Temple Israel of Hollywood (Reform) will meet for two weekend retreats to discuss issues of faith and their perceptions of God. Because the teens are coming from different movements, the hope is that they will find commonalities in their Judaism. The program, which is in its second year, is currently being funded in part by David Suissa, founder and editor of OLAM magazine.

HUC-JIR Selects Four Teachers for NewProgram

The Rhea Hirsch School of Education of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has selected four religious schools to participate in a new program called Creating Teaching Excellence in Congregational Education. The initiative is designed to retain teachers and improve their skills. This summer, exceptional educators from Congregation Ner Tamid in Palos Verdes, Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, Temple Israel of Hollywood and Temple Judea in Tarzana joined together to become mentors to colleagues at their respective religious schools. Mentor teachers learn what is “good teaching,” the importance of reflection, how to teach adult learning and why teachers are resistant to change.

Professor Sara Lee, director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, believes that supplementary schools generally suffer from lack of a skilled and effective faculty. The solution, she feels, is to “strengthen the teaching capacity for people teaching at our schools,” she said. There is turnover, because these people don’t feel well-equipped. Let’s work with the people we have and help them be better equipped. The notion of working within the school site is the heart of this project.”

Briefs compiled by Sharon Schatz Rosenthal, Education Writer.

Finishing the Foundation


As an experienced plastic surgeon, Dr. Joel Teplinsky knows how to fix a nose or perform a skin graft on a burn patient. As a lecturer at the University of California Los Angeles, Teplinsky knows how to communicate these skills to students. But what he did not have was a solid base of knowledge about Torah or Jewish history — until the opportunity arose to be a part of the Yesod program at the University of Judaism (UJ), studying with professors like Aryeh Cohen and Rabbi Miriyam Glazer.

"Most Jews, unless they are rabbis or grow up going to a yeshiva, don’t get a chance to do this," Teplinsky said. "This is not Sunday school where you learn some bubbie meises [old wives’ tales], this is the real nuts and bolts of Judaism."

On May 30, Teplinsky and 176 other students will become the first graduates of the Yesod program. Yesod, which means "foundation," is a two-year intensive series of classes designed to provide a structured way for people to engage in a learning experience similar to that of an undergraduate in Jewish studies. What makes the program unique is that it has been run at a very low cost (currently $250 per year) and in association with area synagogues, with classes taking place at various shuls around town, such as Sinai Temple in Westwood, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.

Yesod initiated its first two-year cycle of classes in the fall of 2000. The program consists of eight semesters, each a five-week session exploring one of eight topics, including the Bible, contemporary issues, Jewish spirituality and modern Jewish history, all taught by UJ faculty and visiting professors. A second cycle began last fall, and another cycle will start in September, although according to Gady Levy, director of the UJ’s department of continuing education and creator of Yesod, the program will reduce its locations to just two synagogues, not yet chosen, in order to better accommodate instructors’ schedules.

Like Teplinsky, some people come to the Yesod wanting to offset a rather limited background in Judaism. Others, such as Elana Artson, 41, find themselves at the opposite extreme. As the wife of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the UJ’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Elana Artson has been exposed to plenty in the way of Jewish knowledge. At the same time, she said, because of the time spent supporting her husband in his endeavors and caring for their two children, she rarely had time to do any intellectual exploration of her own. Yesod gave her the chance to step outside of her usual roles and spend time learning.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson said he found the program "unique in its comprehensiveness."

"There was something similar offered at the Jewish Theological Seminary when Brad was a student, an opportunity for people from the community to study with some of the professors, but it was kind of hit-and-miss," Elana Artson recalled. "Yesod is synagogue-based and has an intensive curriculum. My first class was studying Bible with Walter Hertzberg [chair of the UJ’s department of undergraduate studies] who teaches in such a way that anyone could come in at their level and be able to engage in a conversation about the text. It was wonderful knowing I was learning what rabbinical students are also learning."

Of the 216 people who began with the first cycle, 82 percent stayed through graduation.

The program has proved so popular that Levy is even launching a continuation course of the continuation course: Yesod Plus, a third-year series for Yesod graduates.

"Our ultimate goal for our students is to have them take the program for two years and be touched by it so that they can continue their education in other ways, whether it is to take classes at their synagogue or the UJ or just to read more," Levy said. "We want them to advance their own knowledge."

Behind the Name


A number of years ago, a philanthropist who visited the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s rabbinical seminary on the Lower East Side of New York prepared to give a large gift to the yeshiva.

He insisted, however, that the venerable rabbi give him a grand tour of the classes being taught at the yeshiva. Feinstein was more than happy to oblige, and they went from class to class, sitting in on several of them as they walked through the school.

After the tour, Feinstein took the man back to his study, hoping to hear the amount of his gift. To his surprise, the man informed him that he would not give any gift to the yeshiva. Stunned, Feinstein inquired why he had a change of heart. He responded that he felt the yeshiva wasn’t teaching the students what they needed to learn. He said that it was a mistake to spend so much time on Talmud and Jewish law because the boys weren’t being taught the essentials. Feinstein asked him, "And what are the essentials?" He answered, "Dikduk," Hebrew grammar. "They simply don’t know Dikduk," the man asserted. Feinstein turned to him and said, "No, you are wrong. It’s Dikduk."

We often think we put the emphasis on the correct issue when in reality we miss the main point. A good example of this can be found in this week’s Torah portion. The question is: How was it possible that Isaac and Rebecca could have two sons, twins, no less, educated in the same environment, sent to the same schools and yet, who turn out so drastically different?

The 19th century Chasidic genius, the Shem MiShmuel, offers a brilliant insight that answers this question. He suggests that the secret lies in the names of the two boys. He notes that in the Bible, the name of a person always describes the person’s essence. Esau has the same letters in Hebrew as asu (made, completed). This indicates that Esau was a man who felt no need for self-improvement. He was perfect, complete in every way. Indeed, the numerical value for asu equals 376, which is the same as the word shalom. Shalom not only means "peace" but also "wholeness." Esau was entirely at peace with himself. He did not, and could not, feel the need to improve because he saw himself as perfect.

Jacob, however, was just the opposite. Jacob in Hebrew means heel. Jacob imagined himself as a heel, a lowly person, someone who needed to achieve much more for himself. He was a climber, always prepared to engage in self-improvement and self-criticism.

With this in mind, the Shem MiShmuel quotes a remarkable Talmudic comment. The Talmud, in Berakhot 13a, states: "Anyone who refers to Avraham as Avram [his original name] has transgressed a positive command, but anyone who refers to Israel as Jacob has not transgressed, as Torah itself calls him by this name later on."

In this comment, the Talmud implies that both names contain the same concept. On the one hand, the name Jacob means heel, and on the other, the name Israel derives its meaning from "striving with God and man and prevailing."

This observation contains a great message for all of us. We must take to heart the difference between Jacob and Esau. Esau’s inherent downfall came from his inability to emphasize the correct issue. Repeatedly, Esau missed the main point. Over and over again, Esau refused to appreciate the need to change his ways, to improve. Jacob, on the other hand, became our role model because he could grasp what was essential. Jacob realized that the ability to scrutinize one’s actions, and change accordingly, is the key to a valuable Jewish life.

Yeshiva Students Still Going to Israel


Jennifer Kessler always knew she would spend a year between high school and college studying at a girls’ yeshiva in Israel.

Her modern Orthodox day school in Los Angeles, Shalhevet, usually sends at least a third of the graduating class to Israel, and among the children of her parents’ friends, "everyone" goes to Israel.

But when it came time this year for Kessler, 17, to firm up her plans to attend Midreshet Lindenbaum, a prestigious program in Jerusalem, it wasn’t easy. Her parents, who canceled a family trip to Israel due to concerns about the violence, started worrying. Several other L.A.-area teenage girls that Kessler knew had been planning to study in Israel and decided not to go.

Nonetheless, Kessler remains cautiously committed to her upcoming year in Israel — and is scheduled to depart at the end of August.

In the Orthodox world, that feeling is typical.

While American Jewish tourism to Israel is way down, and American enrollment has dropped sharply at secular institutions like Hebrew University of Jerusalem, post-high school yeshiva programs in Israel are — so far — an exception to the trend.

Nearly 2,400 American yeshiva and seminary students will be departing for Israel in the next month, according to Sheryl Stein, a spokeswoman for El Al Israel Airlines. The number is "a drop" from last year, "but not significant," Stein said. However, she could not provide statistics for last year.

Yeshiva University, centrist Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, reports that almost 1,000 recent male and female high school graduates will be under its auspices in Israel at 36 yeshivot and seminaries and at Bar-Ilan University, the same as last year. Y.U. officials said very few people left in the middle of the last school year, and virtually no students registered for this year have canceled their plans.

Yeshivat Har Etzion, a boys’ yeshiva in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, expects 45 students this year — the same as last year — and had to turn away a number of applicants.

Of course, these numbers could still decrease if the violence intensifies further — and as a result, the yeshivot are still "on pins and needles," said one official in modern Orthodox academia.

But these potential changes aside, why, at a time when Israel’s tourism industry is on the rocks, are Orthodox students still flocking to the Jewish State?

Kessler said she decided to stick with her plans, in part because she’s not the type to "back out of things" and, having already deferred admission at the University of Pennsylvania for a year, wasn’t sure what she would do if she stayed at home.

But ideology also played a part.

"My mother has always said if people stop going to Israel then the Palestinians have won," she said.

Going to Israel, Kessler said, seemed like an "opportunity to do something good for my people."

In addition to ideology and idealism — and studies have shown centrist Orthodox Jews have stronger feelings of connection to Israel than liberal and unaffiliated Jews — other factors have kept enrollment fairly stable at post-high school yeshiva programs, say observers.

For one thing, pre-college Israel study has become a standard rite of passage for modern, or centrist, Orthodox Jews. In a 1999 study, Rabbi Shalom Berger, a teacher at Midreshet Lindenbaum and faculty member at Bar-Ilan University’s Lookstein Center for Jewish Education, found that close to 90 percent of modern Orthodox young adults spend a full year studying Torah in Israel following high school graduation.

The fact that yeshiva programs are the communal norm means that most potential participants have either friends or family members who recently attended them and can vouch for their safety.

Yeshiva officials say another reason Orthodox study programs aren’t affected the way other Israel programs are is because their primary focus is on study, rather than traveling around the country.

That may explain why at Kessler’s high school in Los Angeles, the numbers of students planning to spend a year in Israel did not drop significantly this year, but the school’s 10th-grade trip to Israel was decimated by cancellations.

While the school usually sends almost its entire sophomore class of 60 to Israel for six months, this year, only 30 signed up and only 15 actually went.

Unlike travel programs, many yeshivot — particularly the academically elite ones — have demanding study schedules that last from morning to night and allow little free time for travel.

And most programs have restricted travel further with intensified safety procedures.

Nonetheless, while the prospect of such restrictions may not be prompting cancellations, it doesn’t make the incoming students happy.

"My Israel experience is going to be really different from other people’s experience in the past," Kessler said. "I’m not going to be able to explore and not going to have the freedom."

A Wall of Intolerance


Thirty-three Reform rabbis, men and women from the United States and Canada, held their mixed-gender minyan at the Western Wall on Monday, protected by police barricades and dozens of cops, as a mob of more than 100 haredi yeshiva students hollered abuse at them.

“For a minute there, it looked like the haredim were going to storm the barricades, but there was no physical violence,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).

The rabbis were called “Nazis” and “Haters of Israel” by the chanting haredim. The sight of Jewish women wearing yarmulkes and prayer shawls seemed, as usual, to especially set off the protesters. The leader of the demonstration, Agudat Yisrael Knesset Member Avraham Lazarson, told the rabbis: “What you are doing here is not prayer, but Christian sex. You are degrading the Torah and the Jewish people.”

Some Reform rabbis tried to argue back, but they were overwhelmed by the mob. Hirsch said later: “It’s a shame and disgrace that rabbis have to pray inside a ‘cage’ [of barricades] at the Western Wall.”

Haredi leaders and activists in Jerusalem had gotten wind of the Reform rabbis’ plans days before, and organized the protest. Fliers were distributed in the haredi neighborhoods of Jerusalem. The Reform rabbis had an agreement to hold the minyan in the middle of the Western Wall plaza, but police decided that it was too dangerous, that the rabbis were liable to be physically attacked by haredim. So the minyan was moved to the back of the plaza, and held within the boundaries of metal barricades manned by police.

It wasn’t only haredi leaders who denounced the Reform; the National Religious Party’s Yigal Bibi, who is a deputy minister of religious affairs, said on the eve of the rabbis’ minyan: “This marginal movement had turned into a major issue in this country. We hear about the Reform in the religious councils, in the Supreme Court, at the Western Wall. Enough! We’re sick of it. They come here once a year, and they want to disturb the peace of this holy place.”

The rabbis had scheduled their visit well in advance, but events of the week that preceded their arrival — along with the torrent of hate they met with at the Western Wall — gave fresh impetus to their talks.

The Knesset passed a bill that’s designed to bypass Supreme Court rulings and keep non-Orthodox representatives off local religious councils, which are in charge of maintaining such religious services as synagogues, ritual baths and cemeteries. The bill passed, 50-49, with former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai — the candidate for prime minister on the new center party — casting the deciding vote.

The vote was tied when Orthodox supporters of the bill noticed that Mordechai, who is nominally observant and extremely interested in winning over religious voters, was absent from the floor. Social Affairs Minister Eli Yishai of the Shas Party left 17 messages on Mordechai’s beeper to get to the Knesset, but Mordechai didn’t respond.

Then Shas strongman MK Arye Deri used his connections in the defense establishment to get Mordechai’s home phone, and left him a message that the religious parties needed him in a hurry. Mordechai received the message, raced to the Knesset and cast the deciding vote for the religious services bill.

After the vote, Mordechai was surrounded on the Knesset floor by haredi lawmakers, who were shaking his hand and slapping him on the back. “This is a great day, a great victory,” said Lazarson, who would achieve another “great victory” a few days later by leading the mob at the Western Wall.

Reform and Conservative leaders have vowed to withhold their financial support from Israeli candidates who supported the bill. Hirsch said that ARZA rabbis tried to meet with Mordechai and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former military chief of staff and number two on the centrist party’s list of candidates, during their recent fund-raising visit to the United States, but the meetings were never arranged.

The rabbis were supposed to meet with Mordechai and Shahak again this week, Hirsch said, but the two took off unexpectedly for the United States for another round of fund raising. The rabbis did, however, manage to press their concerns with a number of Knesset members, including prime ministerial candidate Benny Begin, and were due also to meet with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

The other recent outrage to the Reform was the remark made by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron to the effect that the Jewish people are losing more members to Reform “assimilation” than they did to the Holocaust.

“If this had been said by anybody in any other country, it would have immediately been widely denounced as a fundamentally anti-Semitic statement,” said Hirsch. He said that the sentiment was nothing new; it is echoed time and again in Israeli haredi newspapers.

What was especially disturbing, said Hirsch, was that Bakshi-Doron’s statement became known to the public, yet nobody in the leadership of the country, in the government, denounced it.

“This really casts a shadow over Israeli democracy,” said Hirsch. “All societies have their extremists; one of the ways you measure the health of a society is by the reaction to these extremists.”