Autumn 2003


Learning Together-and Testing One's Stereotypes

Forty-eight students received scholarships this year for participating in the University’s B’Tzavtah program.  An innovative, entirely extra-curricular program of studying sacred Jewish texts, such as Talmud, the 3 ˝-year-old program has been funded by an Argentinean businessman.  No criteria are formally laid down for accepting participants, who must devote one whole afternoon a week and several Shabbatons (Sabbath retreats) a year without absence to qualify for the scholarship.  Only a desire to study and discuss the texts together (b’tzavta, in Hebrew).  This year, both an Arab and a Druze student participated, as did—for the first time—a student of Ethiopian origin.

      “Every group is heterogeneous,” said one of the rabbi instructors about the students who have taken part through the years.  “They have to deal with their stereotypes of Haredi rabbis,” he continued, “and I have to deal with mine about secular students.”  The teachers are secularly educated modern Orthodox and Haredi rabbis.  Most of the students who sign up are not religiously observant, but have a sincere desire to study Jewish texts and learn more about the religion—so long as there is no attempt at making them “born-agains.” 

      “It is difficult, the subjects we discuss are difficult, and not all problems are overcome,” one of the teachers commented, admitting that “they [the students] in a way test my faith.”

      For their part, the students, in addition to academic interest, are also seeking co-existence [between the religious and the secular], said one student, who spoke for the group.

      This past year, the participants were divided into three sections.   A small group of 7 students were returnees from last year, and they met for a shorter time but for more intensive study.  The 41 remaining students were divided into two more manageable sections.  Although the scholarship for participation is a definite incentive, the program’s co-directors, Prof. Menachem Kellner of the Dept. of Jewish History and Thought, and Rabbi Bernard Och, the University’s retired Hillel director, feel that the students’ commitment goes beyond that.  Only two participants dropped out this year, they pointed out, both because the students gave birth.

B’Tzavtah’s first year had seen 25 students inaugurate the unusual—because of its context—Jewish-text-study program.  A limit of about 50 students has to be imposed, both for financial (the present budget allows only that number of scholarships) and for academic (meaningful discussion is ineffective with large classes) reasons, though it is felt that more students would commit themselves, given the opportunity.


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