LEARNING TO BE SECULAR JEWS Haaretz Special Edition – Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (JFNA GA). November 2, 2014. By Darryl Engal. Click here to view and download the print version. The BINA Secular Yeshiva, an offshoot of the BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, seeks to cultivate a generation of secular Diaspora and Israeli leaders with strong Jewish identities and an in-depth familiarity with Jewish culture past and present, who see social activism and justice as central values in their lives. According to Nir Braudo, head of the BINA Secular Yeshiva, the meaning of the Hebrew word “hiloni” is lost in translation. “Although its literal meaning is ‘secular,’ in Israel it means something completely different than it does in the Jewish Diaspora. In Israel, everything is Jewish. The Post Office is Jewish. The grocery store is Jewish. The majority of the people living here are hiloni and yet they live Jewish lives, so it is not strictly secular. They just don’t see God or religion as meaningful,” he explains. “They don’t live their lives according to Jewish law. God and the Jewish books are not a power of authority over them. Judaism can be part of their culture, it could be inspiration, it could be many things, but it’s not an authority.” Aligning Judaism with secular thinking Braudo believes that the Jewish identity crisis in Israel is significant because it is related to the question of how the Jewish state is run: What is the Jewish economic viewpoint? How should the Jewish state deal with the peace process? How should the Jewish army act in war and peace-time situations? What about Tikkun Olam (repairing the world)? And where do we fit into the greater scheme of things? This is where the BINA Secular Yeshiva, an offshoot of the BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, comes in. With branches in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and a small satellite branch in Beer Sheva that opened earlier this year, BINA strives to strengthen Israel as a just, democratic, pluralistic society – by emphasizing Judaism as a culture through the Jewish values of Tikkun Olam. Young adults at the BINA Secular Yeshiva intensively study Jewish texts and Jewish culture from sources ranging from the Bible and Gemara to classic Israeli literature and Zionist history. They study with renowned experts in their fields of academia, Jewish scholarship and social activism. Furthermore, students engage in local community action and organize Jewish cultural events and holidays. This format fosters a long-term commitment to Jewish study, social action and Jewish expression, encouraging students to interpret the sources in a meaningful and personal way. More than one way to be Jewish The BINA Secular Yeshiva has about 300 to 350 youngsters a year participating in its programs. Around 500 people attended Yom Kippur services and discussion groups this year. Nearly 80% of them were either current students or alumni, including many soldiers who decided to spend their Yom Kippur furlough at BINA rather than with their families. “We’ve started a movement that will lead to our alumni ending up in every walk of life. This is why we want to develop and grow, because we are making a huge impact. In our vision, we want to see eight secular yeshivas in five years,” says Braudo. “We represent maybe the central and the largest stream of the Jewish people in Israel,” he notes. “When we founded this place in 2006, we believed the time had come to build a secular yeshiva with pluralistic ideas. We think there are many ways to be Jewish and many ways to think about and appreciate Judaism. This place is not a roof for all the different streams; it’s a secular yeshiva, but we have Reform Rabbis and Orthodox teachers, we have teachers from all walks of life and we have different types of students. We believe that part of being hiloni is that we see different ways of studying, but we are not Reform or Conservative in that we are not religious. We do not practice religion.” “Jews all around the world can find the things we are doing here very relevant, especially in terms of the future of Israel as a democratic Jewish state,” Braudo continues. “These two terms should not be in conflict. Judaism is an inspiration; it is the culture of the Jewish state, it is there for the Jews. And democratic is the way the state is run – the system of democracy and the values of democracy. So if we want to keep Israel democratic, we have to invest much more in the Israeli youngsters and their democratic and Jewish values,” he says. Young people are looking for non-religious ways to practice and to find their Judaism, through inspiration, through culture, and most of all, through repairing the world using activism, social justice and volunteering. “This is something that we have made part of our Torah learning at BINA. And we’d be very happy to collaborate with any organization anywhere in the Jewish world to build that kind of world, collaborating with their Jewish communities,” notes Braudo. “We are pluralistic in our point of view. In Israel, we join forces with the Conservative and Reform movements because we are in the same boat as they are – fighting with the government for a budget. We have our own perspective, the secular perspective, but we see ourselves as part of the pluralistic field in Israel; fighting for equality for the different Jewish streams,” Braudo affirms. International programs The first of BINA’s two international programs is a Gap Year for high school graduates and the second is a Tikkun Olam post-college program. This year, the Gap Year program includes students from New Zealand, Holland, France, the U.K. and the U.S. They all speak English, which is a prerequisite for this program. They are the same age as the Israelis on the pre-army Mechina program and they all live together, volunteer together and travel together. Classes in the first semester are offered in English and, once their Hebrew improves, they study together too. In the Tikkun Olam program, about 50 to 60 people join each year, mainly from North America. Most participants are post-college (22 to 24) and they choose one of two tracks – Jaffa, which focuses on co-existence, and south Tel Aviv, with a focus on issues pertinent to low income areas – and they volunteer in those neighborhoods. “I believe students coming to Israel on a BINA program gain far more than the many others coming from abroad to learn about Israel. Here, they study Judaism and the Jewish people, and they are doing something very important with their Jewish identity. They understand that there are different ways to practice and that Jewish identity is very different in Israel than it is in the Diaspora,” Braudo believes. “Looking at the American Jewish community, which has some similarities to Israel, one of the issues is that there is often a disconnect between the organized community and the people. Many members of the younger generation (18-35) don’t see themselves as religious. They don’t go to synagogue on Friday night, but they know the story of their grandparents and they feel Jewish; they feel some kind of connection to Israel. But because they are not religious and the synagogue isn’t relevant for them anymore, they don’t have a way to practice, to express their Judaism.” “Then they come here and they see another way to be Jewish. They can be secular Jews just like their Israeli peers and it can mean something. When your Jewish identity is your culture, you belong to the nationality, and the values of social justice and making the world a better place become the expression of your Jewish identity. This is Judaism for us. This is something every student – foreign or local – can take away from our programs; they can take the values they learned here into their professional and personal lives, and make a phenomenal impact on everyone around them,” Braudo concludes. A variety of opportunities In addition to the successful pre-army Mechina program for Israelis and the Gap Year and Tikkun Olam programs for Diaspora Jews, BINA Secular Yeshiva also offers summer programs, seminars and tours for visiting groups (in Hebrew, English and other languages), monthly Erev Yeshiva open nights of learning and culture, and other holiday and special events. All BINA programs include: • Jewish learning: Jewish identity workshops, Jewish texts from all periods, rabbinic teachings, Zionism, Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, contemporary Jewish literature, etc. • Social Action: Volunteer assignments include tutoring and educational support for at-risk children and youth in underprivileged neighborhoods, support for migrants and asylum-seekers in south Tel-Aviv, and more. • Shabbat: Pluralistic, egalitarian, inclusive Shabbat services. • Community holiday events: Yom Kippur, Hannukah, Tu Bishvat, Purim, Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Shavuot and Tisha B’Av. • Enrichment activities: Lectures, guest speakers, cultural events, tours and field trips throughout Israel.