December 8, 2019

The Torah Lishma Program Draws Immigrants from North America Looking for their ‘Home Away from Home’

Courtesy of Shelly Paz.

“I grew up in a very secular home. I had religious relatives, but the house was secular. Despite that the amount of Jewish studies I received in the secular school I studied at was four times as much as my grandchildren learn today. I have a bar mitzvah-aged grandson who doesn’t even know what the Bible is.”

This was recounted by Yiftah Shapir, a pensioner from Herzliya who attended every week of the last semester at Neve Schechter in the heart of Tel Aviv’s bohemian Neve Tzedek neighborhood. He came to learn Talmud (oral law), the teachings of the Sages and the weekly Torah portion in the “Torah Lishma” program. Not only is the location for a text-based program unusual, the study program itself is not one for beginners.

Astonishingly, a variety of people from surprisingly diverse backgrounds sit alongside each other in Neve Schechter’s beautiful synagogue.

“Torah Lishma is a one-of-a kind program. It offers an opportunity to study in-depth the basic sources of Jewish tradition from a variety of angles, and also affords many opportunities for self-study, where students approach core texts and take ownership of them,” says Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch, Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary that conducts the program in Jerusalem and Neve Schechter in Tel Aviv.

The program is year-long. Its two semesters are relatively intensive, offering regular five-hour long weekly meetings. People registering for the program hail from a variety of backgrounds: secular, traditional, religious and conservative, all types of professionals and a wide span of ages from 30 to 70. The program is funded by generous donators of the Temple Beth Am community in Los Angeles, the Israeli Ministry of Education, the students and Israeli contributors who believe in Torah Lishma’s mission.

“The basic assumption is that there are many ways to be a Jew and many ways to read texts. Judaism is not one idea rather many shades, colors, stances and approaches. The idea behind this program is to allow people with a certain connection and understanding of serious Jewish studies the feeling of owning the texts and familiarity with this book, without feeling foreign or alienated,” says Rabbi Novis-Deutsch. “We want the students to feel comfortable when approaching the Jewish bookshelf. It is also a program for serious and dedicated people, pluralistic yet critical, a program that allows men and women to study together and whose approach is not purely traditional.”

Dr. Julie Cooper, New York-born Torah Lishma student who is an Associate Professor at the School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs at Tel Aviv University, says that she found her place in the program. “I was always interested in Gemara and Talmud studies. As someone who grew up in the U.S. I arrived at program with a background. In my youth I still thought I would reach rabbinical studies but it didn’t happen, and instead I looked for a place that will afford me rabbinical comprehension and continued acquaintance with the Jewish texts,” she recounts.

Dr. Cooper adds that the program, just like its name “Torah Lishma,” offers study for the sake of study and not for any other aim, “and this is very similar to the learning that I knew in my childhood in the U.S.”

Gali Amran, an Israel-born student and a secular high school teacher from Tel Aviv says this program is a rare opportunity for her. “Secular people who come to this program have an opportunity to get to know the Jewish bookshelf in a way that they may not reach alone. The issues chosen in the program are not necessarily for people who have a religious lifestyle, allowing a wider spectrum of people to connect between themselves and to their heritage. The program is based on the principles of learning in Havruta, and each of the people sitting around the table can enrich the discussion from their perspective”.

Yonah (Jonah) Liben is a son of a pulpit rabbi in the Boston area. He moved to Israel some eight years ago and today heads the Tamid Group, a non-profit that brings American students to Israel for professional internships. He describes the program as the answer to his search for a circle of like-minded friends and study environment that suits the spirit in which he was educated and brought up in his parents’ Conservative home. “I grew up in a home of Jewish equality, and both those aspects are very close to my heart. I was very happy to discover that Neve Schechter offers a program that I can attend once a week after work, and with the bonus of an egalitarian approach and traditional studies,” he recounts excitedly. “I’m really happy to find the possibility of in-depth study in a serious atmosphere. I’ve learned many interesting things and enjoy a good circle of friends.”

Dr. Gila Vachman, director of the program in Tel Aviv, added that participants care deeply about their culture and what previous generations thought about issues that also concern them today – and they want to understand more. “Israelis are drawn to the subject [of Judaism] but they also fear it. My role is to turn the text into something friendly, something that belongs to them. I think that since Israel is a Jewish country and the majority here is Jewish, it’s only natural to know more about Judaism, even if they don’t implement it in practice. Every Israeli should be knowledgeable about Judaism, in its many colors and variations,” she concludes.