The uncontested challenge and opportunity of Limmud

I am a child of a mixed marriage.  I was raised in a completely secular environment. My discovery of Judaism has been an ongoing revelation over many decades. I studied for more than 12 years in yeshivot and spent many years studying secular philosophy.  The more I study, the more I realize that Judaism is greater than I ever imagined. In truth, I believe that many Jews, whether non-religious, Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, including myself, do not know how much more Judaism has to offer. It still has scaffoldings, and many more building blocks can be added, shifted and restructured. Shabath, the dietary laws, its moral teachings and so much more suggest a world of sublime ideas that we have not even begun to grapple with yet.   

And so I love to come to Limmud. I just returned from Limmud in England, the birthplace of this everything-Jewish conference/festival. This year, more than 2,500 men and women participated for a full week in Limmud, where every day there were hundreds of lectures, panels, music and cabaret performances, all with a Jewish or Israeli theme.  Limmud is by now the greatest happening in the Jewish world. It has branches all over the world, and every year more and more countries join. I will be teaching at LimmudLA Feb. 17-19 at the Costa Mesa Hilton, as the Southern California conference convenes for its fifth year, and I will be going to Limmud in Germany, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Over the years I have taught in many of its conventions, and every time it is an utter delight. It is the place where I get challenged, where I hear new things (including some utterly delightful nonsense), where I can fall in love with my fellow Jews, laugh and cry with them, and share my commitment to and struggles with Judaism. 

Limmud offers me the whole Jewish world in a microcosm. I hear about the death of God, the real Jesus, the rhetoric in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Jewish power of satire, kosher gospel, homosexuality and more.  As the dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, the main purpose of which is to suggest radical new ways to think about and practice “Orthodox” Judaism, I need to know what is happening in the larger Jewish world — all the struggles, the differences of opinion, the paradoxes and the pain of many of my fellow Jews who don’t fit into an easily definable box but still love being part of our great endeavor. I am confronted daily with the accusation that Judaism has stagnated, that it is terribly dogmatic, that it no longer advances bold ideas, that it offers little to the many young Jews who are looking for more spiritual lives. And, sadly, I agree. Judaism today is far too dedicated to defensive self-preservation — and to propping up sacred cows that need to be slaughtered before it is able to rediscover itself again.

The irony is that the teachings and practices that comprise Judaism were designed to avoid just such a scenario. Jewish law was originally never codified; Jewish beliefs never dogmatized but open-ended. Opposing opinions were the life force in the Talmud. In our age of human autonomy and intellectual freedom and creativity, this is of the greatest importance.

I ask myself:  Can I reformulate or, more accurately, can I help to revitalize Judaism so that it will once again represent a vibrant way of living, without letting go of what I believe are its fundamentals? I think I can, but I need Limmud to help me to hear the voices of all these searching, struggling souls.

And so I love to sit on panels where representatives of other denominations will argue with me about topics such as the divinity of the Torah, or whether halachah has still any purpose, or whether we should sanctify mixed marriages. No doubt I am able to learn a lot from their teachers while they, hopefully, will learn from me. Great controversies are great emancipators.

I want Judaism to be what it really always used to be: a tradition where ideas can be tested, discussed, thought through, reformulated and even rejected, with the understanding that no final conclusions have ever been reached, could be reached or should be reached. Matters of faith should stay fluid, not static. I want my fellow Jews to fall in love with halachah, authentic Jewish law. Not defensive halachah as developed in the Diaspora — in which we had to make sure that we would survive among a non-Jewish environment that included strong anti-Semitic overtones —  but prophetic halachah, in which the great universalistic values of Judaism become key players. After all, halachah is the practical upshot of living by unfinalized beliefs while staying in theological suspense. Only thus can Judaism avoid becoming paralyzed by its awe of a rigid tradition or, conversely, evaporate into a utopian reverie.

As Baruch Spinoza might have said: All noble things are as great as they are rare.

For more information or to register for LimmudLA, visit

Jewish literacy Is a mitzvah — and not fulfilled with phonetics

For the People of the Book, literacy is a mitzvah, a sanctified behavior that draws us closer to God and the Jewish community.

Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, described a curriculum in the year 200: “A 5-year-old begins Tanach,” or scripture; “a 10-year-old begins Mishnah,” or rabbinic law; “a 13-year-old is obligated to accept mitzvot,” based on his/her ability to comprehend meaning; “a 15-year-old begins Gemarah,” or elucidation of Mishnah. (Avot: 5:28).

The desired outcome of this course of study is the development of a Jewish identity rooted in our connection to and knowledge of Jewish texts.

Fast forward to our day: In the past 30 years, the number of schools and the percentage of Jewish children receiving a day school education has risen to dramatic heights. Most of the schools are under the broad spectrum of Orthodox auspices; a smaller but growing number associate themselves with the Conservative and Reform movements or are in the expanding network of pluralistic “community schools.”

Yeshivot and Jewish day schools are uniquely positioned to deepen and expand Jewish literacy. Immersion in classical texts, the time commitment of students and the financial investment of families come together to give a 21st century meaning to Jewish literacy. As graduates of today’s day schools assume professional and volunteer leadership roles in Jewish communal institutions, renewed Jewish literacy may emerge as a characteristic of Jewish life.

A premiere aspect of Jewish literacy is fluency in Hebrew, whether classical or modern, spoken or textual. In our time, we have seen a huge growth of Jewish publishing of classical texts in English. Nonetheless, it is true that the meaning, nuance and message are lost in the translation and may lead to distortions of the original.

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act reduced much of the discussion on literacy in American society to a focus on phonics – $900 million was distributed in 2002-2003 to develop “scientific, research-based” programs on this approach to reading – but the initiative has been stalled at that basic level.

Day schools and yeshivot need to resist the temptation of reducing their Hebrew literacy programs to phonetic decoding. That would miss a special opportunity of these schools.

Most modern day schools subscribe to the belief that they are engaged in fashioning a new kind of Jew: One who sees the world refracted not only by the wisdom of Western civilization but also simultaneously through the insights of Torah.

Jewish literacy promotes such philosophical and psychological integration; the yeshiva and day school that embraces this view can produce a student whose vision of the world and his/her community was described millennia ago by the midrash: “May words of Torah be spoken in the language of Yafet,” i.e. classical philosophy and science, “within the tents of Shem,” i.e. the ideas and ideals of the Jewish people. (Genesis Rabbah 36:8). Many hope that this describes the best of what it means to be a modern Jew.

There is a third dimension to Jewish literacy particular to the day school setting: To be Jewishly literate, immersed in the meanings and messages of 4,000 years of Jewish life and letters, conveys with it a moral imperative. We get “it” – the eternal truths of Judaism – when we look up from the page of text, peopled by the generations of giants that preceded ours, and say to ourselves, “What are the consequences for me of taking this seriously?”

The Mishnah teaches: If we achieve Jewish literacy, then our actions will speak louder than our words so that we treat people with a countenance that reflects God’s own. (After Avot 1:15). Jewish literacy does not permit a retreat from real life. What we read, study and discern ought to have implications for our attitudes and behavior.

In the Jewish schools of today, Jewish literacy can have new and special meaning. It calls for a refocus on the linguistic, textual and ethical dimensions of learning, which will be the legacy we leave our students.

What a Difference a ‘Gap Year’ Makes

After high school graduation last year, as his friends went off to college, Ari Feinstein headed to Israel. He taught English to 10-year-olds in Upper Nazareth, worked on a camel farm near Dimona, studied in Jerusalem and participated in simulated basic training on an Israeli army base.

“I don’t know any other American kid who went around carrying an M-16 for two months,” he said. “Or had as much immersion in Israeli society.”

Ari, 19, now a freshman at UC Davis, was one of 300 high school graduates participating in Year Course, a nine-month program of Young Judaea, the Zionist Youth Movement of Hadassah that has sent more than 5,000 teenagers to Israel since its founding in 1956.

Young people like Ari have been going to Israel for decades, but the numbers are likely to increase substantially with the recent introduction of MASA, a new long-term funding initiative between the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel and its partner organizations worldwide that is targeted to reach $100 million per year, perhaps as early as 2008. This year $25 million was made available. The program is designed encourage more students to participate in Year Course and other similar post-high school or “gap-year” courses.

At a cost of about $13,000 to $18,000 for each student, these programs provide a break between high school and college and can include study, travel, work and community service. They allow students time for reflection, personal growth and often new or renewed religious commitment.

MASA, Hebrew for journey, started funding students who qualified on a need-basis in 2004-05, subsidizing more than 100 approved five- to 10-month Israel programs that assist 18- to 30-year-olds in building a solid connection to Israel. This year, MASA is helping to send 7,000 young adults worldwide to Israel, with hopes of sending 20,000 a year by decade’s end.

According to MASA director Dr. Elan Ezrachi, “Our main goal is to enable young adults from all over the world to have an extended period in Israel and, by doing so, to strengthen Jewish identity, build up a connection to Israel and invest in their future roles as leaders in their home communities. And, from an Israeli perspective, they get a taste of the idea of aliyah.”

The numbers of students taking advantage of such programs historically have not been large among Reform and Conservative Jews, according to Joseph Blassberg, director of career counseling at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles. He said Milken sends about three or four graduates annually on one-year, post-high school programs and has found that colleges and universities generally approve students’ requests to defer admission until the following September.

Among the Modern Orthodox, a gap year is de rigueur. Each year, approximately 1,500 to 2,000 Orthodox young men and about 1,600 young women, the majority from the United States, spend their post-high school year in yeshivot in Israel. They go for a year of intense study, with the boys often spending 12 to 16 hours a day poring over Jewish texts. They also all get an opportunity to reflect on their future from a Jewish perspective.

For Ira Silver, 18, a recent graduate of Yeshiva University High School (YULA) for Boys who dreams of becoming an investment banker, the year has provided an opportunity to ponder the intersection of his religious and professional life.

Since September, he’s been a student at Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh in Jerusalem. “Yeshiva gives you the opportunity to become stronger in your Torah,” he said. “You know for sure that you can function in society as a successful investment banker and a religious Jew.”

American students first began attending yeshivot in the 1970s, according to Asher Brander, rabbi of Westwood Kehilla and Israel guidance counselor at YULA for Boys. There were a few earlier, he said, but the phenomenon got into full swing in the 1980s.

About 30 Modern Orthodox yeshivot are in existence, mostly centered in or around Jerusalem, and each hosts about 60 to 70 students. They vary in terms of academics, ideology, geography, supervision and warmth.

Some, like Lev HaTorah and Yeshivat Eretz, focus on college preparatory skills, teaching boys how to live as committed Jews on college campuses. Others, including Ner Ya’akov, Neveh Zion and Kesher, are set up to deal with at-risk teens.

But overall, the process — and the dramatic progress students make — is similar at all schools. “They sit over a piece of Talmud or a piece of Torah, and they discover themselves,” Brander said.

Yeshivot for young women also date back to the 1970s with some, including Machon Gold and Michlala, established even earlier. But they total only about 20 today, providing fewer places and stiffer competition than at men’s yeshivot.

New yeshivot, however, are being launched. The Tiferet Center for Advanced Torah Studies for Women opened its doors last September, admitting 48 students from an applicant pool of 200. According to co-founder Rabbi Azriel Rosner, Tiferet was founded because of need and because of a desire to create a caring and communal environment.

Women’s yeshivot also are differentiated by their unique perspective. At Michlelet Esther, said co-principal Rabbi Baruch Smith, “our forte is very much in finding a girl who is not highly motivated in her yiddishkayt, or Torah outlook, and in giving her knowledge and inspiration to be religious.” Founded in 1995, the yeshiva accepts 78 students each year from 120 to 200 applicants.

For Lauren Katchen, a YULA graduate who attended Michlelet Esther in 2003-2004, the experience was the “best decision I ever made in my whole life.” Now a student at Queens College, City University of New York, Katchen, 20, is majoring in textiles, art history and business. She wants a career in fashion, but her experience in Israel altered her perception of her eventual role as a mother.

“It didn’t even occur to me that it’s such an important thing to raise your kids on your own, that you are the mother to instill in them good character traits and see them on the right path,” she said.

An innovative yeshiva, Midreshet Darkeynu opened three years ago to address the needs of religious girls with learning disabilities and who, in the words of parent Joelle Keene, “are just a little different.” Keene’s daughter, Hannah, 19, is taking a second year there, studying and working in a kindergarten. “She’s getting a richer religious identity in a beautiful strong way, as well as social experience and independence,” Keene said.

“The year in Israel is unique,” said Shira Hershoff, Israel guidance counselor at YULA for Girls.”The idea of separating from American culture, the idea of separating from all the distractions to spend the year in Israel connecting to people, connecting to the land and focusing on Torah studies is a very powerful year.’

In the Charedi community, a gap year is not customary for boys nor necessary, because they don’t go on to college, according to Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. They generally transition to an American yeshiva after high school and later to an Israeli yeshiva, where they spend several years and often make aliyah.

More commonly, the ultra-Orthodox girls spend a post-high school year in Israel, but the cost is often prohibitive and many take that year at an American yeshiva. Safran estimated that there are about 10 Charedi yeshivot for men and five for young women.

In the non-Orthodox community, there are fewer options for spending a gap year in Israel, although the number of opportunities are increasing, along with growing interest.

In fall 2005, Young Judaea enrolled its largest group ever, 400 teenagers, including 50 in Shalem, its track for Orthodox students. It still had a waiting list. Next year, the program hopes to admit 500 to 600 students.

Habonim Dror, a Progressive Labor Zionist Youth movement program and, in its 56th year, the longest-running program sending American teens to Israel, currently has 68 students in Israel, up from 30 last year. The teens live on a kibbutz for a half year and then live cooperatively in an urban setting. They study Hebrew, socialist Zionism and cultural Judaism and work on developing leadership skills and doing social justice work.

The yearlong Nativ, under the auspices of the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, is celebrating its 25th anniversary and has a record 78 youths in Israel this year. Next year, the program is hoping to expand to 100 participants. They spend a semester in Jerusalem at Hebrew University or the Conservative Yeshiva and a semester living on a kibbutz or doing community service.

New programs are emerging, among them Carmel, initiated last year by the Union for Reform Judaism and billed as a first-year of college. With eight students in its inaugural year and 14 this year, Carmel combines study at the Lokey International Academy of Jewish Studies at the Leo Baeck Education Center and the University of Haifa.

Another new program is scheduled to begin in fall 2007 — SIACH, a one-year pluralistic yeshiva, which will be based in Jerusalem. Its name means dialogue and discussion in Hebrew, and its focus will combine serious Torah study with Hebrew and other Jewish and Israeli learning.

“It’s all about creating committed Jews,” said SIACH director Rabbi David Harbater, whose goal is to create a gap-year revolution in the non-Orthodox community, similar to the development of such programs in the Orthodox community 30 years ago.

Peter Geffen, founder of New York’s Abraham Joshua Heschel School, is also looking for a different model with his new program, Kivunim: New Directions. Set to open this fall with 48 kids — half of whom have already signed up — the program will combine experiential learning in Jerusalem with field trips every five weeks to explore the contemporary Jewish communities of Morocco, Lithuania, Hungary and other countries.

Believing that we are too focused on the past, Geffen wants to develop new Jewish leaders who have an understanding of the broader multicultural world and the necessity for co-existence. “There is no place in our agenda for our kids to imagine what the future should look like,” he said.

Still, the current programs seem to be effective. Guidance counselor Hershoff reported that parents of both young women and young men have said to her, “I sent off a teenager, and I got back a mentsch.”