Jerusalem — Nine students are sitting around a table in a sunny classroom near the Old City, studying verses from the Midrash. Their bearded teacher, a knit kipa on his head, leads them in a discussion of the passage’s biblical roots and some possible interpretations.
Sounds like a typical yeshiva scene.
But most of the students are wearing blue jeans. The class includes bareheaded men — and several women.
Not a typical yeshiva scene.
Rabbi Moshe Silberschein’s class is part of Beit Midrash – A Liberal Yeshiva, which begins its second year next month on the Jerusalem campus of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College after a decade of unsuccessful attempts.
Sponsored by HUC in cooperation with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Leo Baeck College, in London, it is geared for adults, visiting Americans and native Israelis, who choose to learn traditional Jewish texts full-time with no diploma or rabbinical ordination in mind — as in a traditional Orthodox yeshiva. The curriculum emphasizes chavruta learning, with study partners, as in a traditional Orthodox yeshiva.
“We are part of the sweep of Reform Judaism today,” says Rabbi Naamah Kelman, coordinator of Beit Midrash, which is supported by UJA-Federation of New York. In recent decades the movement has put an increased stress on Torah study, while training its members to perform duties once reserved for the Orthodox, such as performing circumcisions and writing Torah scrolls.
But unlike Jerusalem’s scores of Orthodox yeshivas, Beit Midrash allows men and women to learn side by side. And unlike the city’s Pardes Institute, which also has a co-educational student body, its faculty and educational orientation have a decidedly non-Orthodox bent. Beit Midrash is closest in philosophy to the New York Kollel, a 2-year-old “liberal yeshiva” based at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Greenwich Village.
“Our whole approach is very different than the traditional yeshiva,” says Rabbi Kelman. “The books open at the table would not be at most yeshivas.”
Most Beit Midrash instructors come from HUC, or, like Rabbi Silberschein, from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Rabbi Kelman, an American immigrant and the first woman ordained here by HUC, calls Beit Midrash, “a reflection of the Reform face in Israel … saying we are here to stay.”
“It’s not [overtly] part of the pluralism debate” between the country’s Orthodox establishment and non-Orthodox groups, she says of the program. “It’s part of a strategy of putting ourselves on the map.” Some two dozen American immigrants and visitors are enrolled in the Yeshiva’s English-language section, and twice as many Israelis study in the 3-year-old Hebrew-language branch.
A half-mile away, in the Center for Conservative Judaism, a similar yeshiva is in its third year. Nearly 40 full-time students are enrolled in the program, officially known as the Yeshiva of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
The size of its egalitarian program has doubled each year, says Rabbi Pesach Schindler, director of the United Synagogue Office in Israel. “People are hungry for this kind of thing.”
“I think they’re just beginning to hear about us,” says Betsy Landis, who coordinates public relations and fund raising for Beit Midrash in New York.
A spokesman for Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, declining to make a formal statement, said the chief rabbis “do not recognize” such yeshiva programs under the aegis of non-Orthodox denominations. “The view of the Chief Rabbis is the Orthodox view.”
Rabbi Kelman says Beit Midrash has attracted students — several had previously tried other Israeli yeshivas — who want a combination of advanced learning and a non-coercive atmosphere. “We are not prescriptive. We are teaching them to make [their own] choices” about religious belief and observance.”
“I didn’t want anyone to tell me how to dress or try to influence me,” says Chemdat Wolf, 28, a moshav-born librarian who has studied in the Beit Midrash Israeli section for three years and wears jeans to class. Now, she says, she has “more respect for religion and for religious people.”
David Nerenberg, 31, a budget analyst from Philadelphia who took a year’s leave of absence to study at Beit Midrash, says “it’s given me a much greater appreciation for what Judaism has to offer.”
A Hebrew school graduate, Nerenberg says “I was guilty of abdicating Jewish sources and tradition. I always wanted to study Jewish texts intensively.
“This program,” he says, offers the best opportunity to study in a liberal environment.”
“It has been a dream for many, many years to spend a year in Jerusalem studying,” says Stacy Palestrant, 26, who is doing exactly that at Beit Midrash. “To me this place has been a lifesaver,” she says. “I like the fact that you can be a skeptical person and ask questions that would make teachers in other yeshivas uncomfortable.”
Several Beit Midrash students come with minimal Hebrew skills, which quickly improve, Rabbi Kelman says. “We’re not producing Talmud scholars, which the classical yeshiva does,” she says. “We’re producing well-rounded people … a student who will be able to get through a page of Talmud, who will be able to read a page in the Chumash [Torah] and illuminate it.”