“Being at Haifa University strengthens my faith and deepens my knowledge,” said American-born, ordained Rabbi Naftali Kreisler, who is in his second year of studying for a Master’s degree here. His field: Bible Studies.

It is a surprising choice of fields for a religious student. “I am always getting asked by other students, ‘How can you stand listening to the classes?’ or ‘Why Haifa and not Bar-Ilan?’” he said. “And my answer is that I wanted a secular environment, to be able to be involved in a pluralistic area and have contact with other cultures.” The Bible Studies Department is largely based on biblical criticism, an area of study normally frowned on by the religious establishment.

Kreisler came to Israel from California in 1989 and made aliya the following year. For the next five years, he studied at a yeshiva to become a rabbi. “It was a very demanding program, especially as I didn’t speak Hebrew when I first arrived. At the same time, I obtained a religious teacher’s certificate, a qualification for teaching in the religious high school system. I also completed a Bachelor’s degree in Bible and Jewish Philosophy.”

Kreisler, who comes from a non-orthodox background and attended a Hebrew school with a Zionist approach, thinks that Israelis have difficulty in understanding the concept of a religious Conservative or Reform Jew and an Orthodox Jew studying strictly secular subjects. He himself had gone to San Francisco State University to study Philosophy and Classical Music. At the same time, he was a teaching assistant in a course on the Philosophy of Comparative Religions. “It was while I was there, I suddenly realized that I needed to be in Israel,” Kreisler recalled.

His first job in Israel was teaching in a secular junior high school in the north of the country. “It was during a very sensitive period - just after the late Prime Minister Rabin’s assassination. I knew that students and staff were at first apprehensive about someone who looks like a yeshiva bocher with my black yarmulke, white shirt, and black trousers. But my year turned out to be fabulous, and I left with a tremendous impression of Israeli youth.”

Kreisler’s goal was the academic life, and so it was back to university. Among other things, he started to learn Arabic. “Haifa University has the largest percentage of Arab students. I felt that that was important, especially to me, a student of the Arabic language,” he explained. “I make a conscious effort to talk Arabic outside the class, and I feel absolutely accepted by my Arab classmates. I think we have a friendly relationship.”

Kreisler commented on the fact that he does not see many Israeli Jewish students, once outside the classroom, fraternizing or making any active effort toward acquainting themselves with Arabs at the University. “I, personally, feel that it is enriching to be in contact with other cultures--Arab, Palestinian, Druse, Christian. I find the Arab students here cultured, polite, and intelligent.”

Kreisler believes that Jewish Israelis need to strive to extricate themselves from invalid stereotypes, whether concerning Arabs or religious Jews. The few times he has felt offended, it has been by Israeli Jews. “I know that it is just because of the way I look,” he remarked. In his opinion, pluralism is an important social aspect to be cultivated, since it provides the opportunity for people to experience and learn about one another.

As well as the many problems that most immigrants face, Kreisler has the additional one of being an observant Jew and living in the dormitories. “The superlative academic studies make me persevere with the difficulty of living in a secular environment. I admit that it was easier living in Jerusalem. But even there, it can be lonely when you have no family in the country. Actually sharing an apartment with research students from Germany, Kenya, and Israel is a positive experience for me.”

Classical music still continues to play an important part in Kreisler’s life. He borrows the key to the Observation Gallery on the 30th Floor of the University’s Eshkol Tower and practices on the piano there whenever he can.

Kreisler’s research in the future will be aimed at a comparative analysis of theology and judicial systems. “I feel there is a great similarity between Judaism and Islam, and with more knowledge this could enable a lessening of superfluous tension between the two people.”

The unusual graduate student intends to make a decision soon as to whether he will remain in Israel or return to America and his family. In either country, he is determined to follow his belief in the fact that pluralism is to be cultivated and that people are people no matter what their ethnicity.

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