Off-Campus Jewish Studies Prove an Unusual Hit

The 27 students sat on motley chairs that had been pushed into a large oval, their “rav” and their “rebbe” at two different points on this figure. They were using a weekend retreat in a bucolic setting in the Carmel mountains to reprise their twelve weeks of study in an unusual “kollel,” or community. The term normally applies to a framework for advanced study of Talmud and other Jewish religious texts by older, usually married male students who receive monetary reimbursement for their hours of study.

Even a cursory glance at this group, however, revealed the unusual nature of this particular kollel. First, half the students were women. Although the women’s kollel became a recognized phenomenon at the end of the 20th century, it is strictly a women’s only framework, as separate as the men’s kollel. Here there was no such separation.

There were no signs, but inquiry would fast disclose that the students all study at the University of Haifa, which is also a sponsor of this particular community. Beit Hillel (the University’s Hillel House) is another sponsor. A kollel is normally associated with a yeshiva. In the two or three instances in which it is affiliated with an academic institution, the sponsoring university is one under religious patronage, such as Yeshiva University in New York or Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

The University of Haifa is not only a secular institution, it prides itself on promoting Jewish-Arab co-existence. Its student body is some 18% non-Jewish, the largest percentage in the country. Moreover, its campus atop Mount Carmel has no specific building dedicated as a house of prayer. A kollel at the University of Haifa sounds, then, almost like a contradiction in terms. It seemed clear, in any case, that under the University’s sponsorship, this would be no proselytizing activity.

And, indeed, given the nature of the University’s self-styled mission, it is no surprise that the objective of the project is both knowledge and co-existence. Prof. Menachem Kellner, effectively the director of this experimental kollel—it’s “rebbe,” as it were—explains that one purpose “is to create a forum for religious and non-religious Jews to meet in order to learn together.” The hope, as strange as it may sound to those unfamiliar with the schisms in present-day Israeli Jewish society, is that this coming-together over Jewish texts will combat mutual fear and dislike of each other.

The second objective, according to Kellner, who holds the Wolfson Chair in Jewish thought at the University, “is to make a small contribution to lessening the ignorance by most Israeli Jews of their own (Jewish) culture.”

In this context, too, the project presents a way for non-Jewish students to gain more than a superficial knowledge of Judaism if they wish. Membership in this community is not restricted, but freely open to the University’s entire student body.

The professor, by the way, prefers to shy away from the term “kollel” and to refer to the project by its more academically neutral name, “B’Tzavta,” a Hebrew word meaning “together in a friendly way.” The project is being financed entirely by a concerned South American Jewish philanthropy, the Horn Family Foundation of Sao Paulo.

Only one of the young men in the oval sported a kippa, the crotcheted round head-covering typically worn by Modern Orthodox Jews. Yaacov is in fact a graduate of a Hesder Yeshiva, a post-high school yeshiva that combines higher Talmudic studies and army service.

“I am amazed,” he says. “I never knew they could learn like that. They study (the religious texts) more seriously than many in the yeshiva.”

“They” are the secular students, who compose 85% of this community. Three of the women students are also religiously observant. Several of the students may identify themselves as traditional, but certainly more than half are unabashedly secular.

What has brought all 27 students into this community? What connects someone like Yaacov or Keren, one of the religious women students who was delighted to find unexpectedly a framework at the University for continuing with her religious studies, with Sara, whose ideological background is the anti-religious Hashomer Hatzair once-militant Jewish youth organization, or with Yael, whose interest runs to biblical research but not to the prayer book?

It is the thirst for knowledge of the Jewish sources. It is ultimately finding out who they are by means of the written texts published by sages hundreds and thousands of years ago. It is discovering the insights provided by a literature thought relevant to only a minority of one’s co-religionists.

Osnat is a second-year special education and literature student. She tries to establish her credentials at the outset of the interview: “I am secular, not religious,” she declares. She joined the project because of “an internal search—to see how I fit in [as a secular Jew].” She especially likes the fact that the learning is not academically connected, but “directed at people, not going after a degree.”

She admits that the weekly 4-hour sessions are intensive and cover a lot of ground, then adds, “we have lot to learn.”

Shahar, in his third year at the University, mentions that his grandfather was Orthodox. Although he himself was always attracted to Judaism, he also felt that he was missing a great deal. On the other hand, the communication and political science major was leery that missionary activity would accompany any formal learning framework.

“Here, in the B’Tzavta project,” he announces, “I can learn and not be proselytized.”

“Every Jew should know about Judaism,” continues Shahar, who writes poetry in his spare time. “Judaism is a great asset,” he remarks as though trying to justify why a secular Jew would study religious texts. “You can draw a lot from it, from many perspectives.” He acknowledges that he knows little, but now “things have been opening up.”

He wants to join the Israeli foreign service after he graduates and become a cultural attache, feeling that he could be a kind of bridge between secular and religious Jews after the experience of this project.

Yael, one of the project’s two student coordinators, is in the University’s B.A. Honors program. A third-year student, she is concentrating in Bible Studies, a research-oriented, academic department that studies Jewish texts in a wholly different light than does the kollel. It was precisely because she wanted the non-research side of Jewish learning that she joined the B’Tzavta project.

“Some of my friends thought it [the project] wanted to make us ‘born-again’ Jews,” she said, using the term hozer betshuvah, meaning a return to penitence, and echoing a comment made by other participants. “Some of the participants were also afraid of this at first.

“But the two ravs [rabbis] are amazing. They are very open. We have all kinds of discussions. They give us a different viewpoint. The program gives us the tools to look at things from another perspective.

“Despite my courses in Bible Studies, we get sources that I had not known previously as well as a different world outlook.”

One more point is important for Yael, who wants to go on for an M.A. “The very meeting with people like this”—by which she means the student mix—“erases the stigma” of studying Jewish texts in a non-academic milieu.

Eli, at 32, is an older student; he was only completing his first year, taking General Studies. Two things attracted him to the project. One was to find out more about Judaism. The other was the stipend. Eli was, in fact, the first to refer to the study grant without prompting. Nevertheless almost all who were asked admitted that the stipend was a decisive factor in their taking on the study commitment.

Eli, like many of the other participants, pointed to what he called the “lack of brainwashing” when studying the texts. Equally important for him—and for many of the others, too, it seemed—was that “I didn’t have to be tested, so I could absorb it better.” He praised the teachers as being not only comprehensible, but also very calming.

The two kinstructors, who have been given straight A’s by their students, are both Orthodox Rabbis who also have academic degrees, though not necessarily in the fields that they teach.

Rabbi Ronen Lovitz, who is also the rabbi of Ner Etzion, a modern Orthodox moshav near Haifa, and Rabbi Moshe Gershenfeld, who travels to Haifa once a week from Jerusalem, have brought an air of “first-class excitement” to the project. The description came from Professor Kellner, whose doubts about whether the project would succeed were allayed after seeing how the students grappled with the texts and absorbed the lectures of these two rabbis at their first meeting.

Neither Lovitz nor Gershenfeld talk about themselves to the students. Lovitz was a rabbinical emissary in South Africa, where he found time to complete a Master’s degree in comparative religions. His wife Rivka, the daughter of American olim, is a self-described Orthodox feminist. Certified as a rabbinical pleader in Israel’s religious court system (beit din), she counsels women who have religious legal suits, such as obtaining a get, or religious divorce.

At the Shabbat seminar, Rivka Lovitz in fact presented a different perspective on Judaism and Feminism. The topic itself and, more so, her willingness to confront difficult issues so honestly somewhat surprised her audience.

The American-born Gershenfeld, who also has a graduate degree, was a combat engineer in the IDF. Representing a more traditional stream than his fellow project teacher, he has accepted the challenge of teaching secular students who come to class, as it were, to learn, not to be “converted.”

The once-a-week sessions are text-driven: Bible, Mishna, Talmud, along with commentaries. For most of the students, it was the first time that ever they saw an actual Talmud text. At times they break up into small groups to figure out the text themselves. Mostly, however, they follow the pages in front of them as Gershenfeld explains and fields questions.

Lovitz tends to conduct more discussions, whether on topics he has chosen or on subjects that the students themselves have selected, such as the attitude of Judaism toward the other and relations between the sexes in Judaism. At the Shabbat seminar, Lovitz analyzed the sayings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in relation to non-Jews.

For technical reasons, the B’Tzavta project is conducted in the Central Carmel neighborhood, the students being bused there from the University of Haifa campus every Tuesday. They meet in a clubhouse sponsored by the University’s Hillel House. Rabbi Bernard Och, recently retired as the University’s first and long-term Hillel Rav who is founder of the Martef 10 clubhouse, acts as administrator of the project. A Conservative rabbi, Och spoke at the seminar on the meaning of Shavuoth in our day.

The pool was beckoning, and the grounds and fresh air of the kibbutz guesthouse were inviting. None of the students, however, took advantage to excuse themselves from any of the lectures and discussions. Though it was late in the afternoon on this warm Saturday, Professor Kellner also held the group in rapt attention with his lecture on Passover, Shavuoth, Plato, and Isaiah Berlin.

At a final wrap-up session before returning to the campus after the end of the Sabbath, the students surprised the staff by expressing a desire to continue meeting off campus at the Martef 10 clubhouse. Every student who will be back at the University next year intended to rejoin B’Tzavta.

Kellner, Och, and Lovitz agreed they had to go back to the drawing board to plan the curriculum for next year, when a new group of students would join the present “kollelniks.”

The project was “designed to teach, not preach,” as Kellner put it. No one set out to transform this unusual “kollel” into a regular kollel. The students’ reactions acknowledged that this was the case. The biggest wish of the project’s initiators was perhaps that participants would have more of a Jewish, and more of an Israeli, identity than when they went into it. There seemed little doubt to one outside observer that this wish was on its way to being realized.