Conversations with Innovative Educators
Dr. Ariel Levinson, Co-Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Secular Yeshiva
by Batel Kolman
First published in Motzash [Lifestyle magazine of the Makor Rishon newspaper] 8.11.2019
►Hi Ariel, let’s start the conversation with the oxymoron “secular yeshiva.” Is this a sign that
the universe is collapsing?
“Definitely not. We grew up in a world that defined hiloniut [secularism] as anti-religious or
nonreligious. Creating secular spirituality is a big challenge. We are facing a double-edged trap: on
one hand, how do you not fall into the religious trap and on the other hand, how do you not fall into
the sweet, honeyed New-Age trap? This requires very sensitive work that includes a lot of trial and
error regarding how to create authentic secular Jewish culture.”
►Tell me how and why the secular yeshiva was founded.
“A decade ago, my two partners, Nir Amit and Avishay Wohl, and I established the secular yeshiva.
At the time, we were young teachers working in the [Israeli secular] public education system and
also were active in the Jerusalem cultural scene. We were producing literary and cultural events. We
felt a need to create a secular culture that did not exist in Jerusalem. We moved on the seam
between educators and academics and people of culture. That’s how it began and it continues to this
day. We seek to forge a connection between the worlds of text, film, poetry and music not for the
sake of entertainment, but in order to merge cultural and spiritual experiences.
“As teachers who had studied liberal arts – Bible, literature, and history – we felt that we had been
assigned the goal of teaching our students how to answer questions correctly on the matriculation
exams, but we were not asked to teach them how to tap into our cultural sources to create building
blocks for life, for meaning, identity, affiliation and inspiration. In the years when we taught in the
public education system, we discovered that this generation is searching for a way to reconnect to
the Jewish spiritual world. To respond to that need and enable a different type of learning, we
understood that we needed to leave the system. If the public education system had fulfilled this
need, there would be no need for post-army programs. We are creating the supplement to complete
it. I also spent a period teaching in institutions of higher education and decided not to continue. Our
sense was that the story is happening outside of all this. There is a large decline in the number of
students studying liberal arts, as well as in the budgets and the salaried positions in liberal arts, and
there is a need for educators outside of academia.
“Beyond that, we felt that there is profound alienation from and negative emotions regarding
Jerusalem, which is a place full of significance that suffers from awful branding. We tried to
respond to two challenges: To cause young Israelis to get to know and fall in love anew with both
Jewish-Israeli culture and Jerusalem. We sought to expose them to the complex sides, but also to the
beautiful sides of the city. After we established the yeshiva, we joined forces with BINA, so today we
are a branch of the Jewish movement for social change and besides Tel Aviv, we have secular
yeshivot in Haifa and Beersheba.”
►I understand that you left the public education system in order to create supplementary
education. Can you put your finger on the most significant point that was revealed to you in
“We discovered that the problem with the secular public educational system is not only a gap in
knowledge or the distance between the world of our students and the classical Jewish texts such as
Mishnah and the Talmud, but also that there is no discussion of ‘what is the world of secular
Judaism.’ That is much worse.”
►How would they know about it? Isn’t it a new thing?
“It is a world that has existed for 300 years. We forget that even the different religious groups in
Israel are here thanks to the revolution of the fathers of the movement for modern Judaism and
secularist Zionism. The Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) movement – that is where the education
system’s greatest lacuna is – actually gave rise to what are known today as modern Jews. All of the
people you interviewed for your column, no matter what segment of society they hail from, owe a
profound debt to the people who created modern Jewish education – the circles of the
Enlightenment movement. It is a complete world of knowledge that is not only knowledge, but also
is intended to create identity regarding the question of what is a secular, Israeli, and modern Jew.”
►I don’t think that the Israeli secular educational system teaches about Micah Joseph Berdichevski,
for example. How were he and others similar to him erased from curriculums?
“Fifty years ago, Berdichevski was studied in high schools. Then, however, the secular education
system became nonideological. All alumni of [Israel’s] ultra-Orthodox [haredi] and religious
educational systems are raised with the goal of maintaining religious or ultra-Orthodox ideology;
they know how to recite the ideas of the thinkers and philosophers and their disagreements. The
secular educational system neutralized the entire discussion of identity. The most important
question that should be asked in the education system in Israel – ‘Who is a modern Jew?’ – isn’t
asked at all.”
►How do you explain that?
“One reason is the rift with the past and the ethos of negating the Diaspora, upon which Zionism
arose. Anything with the slightest scent of Judaism is alleged to stem from the Diaspora existence
from which we liberated ourselves.”
►Haven’t the days of that excuse passed?
“In the education system, it still is possible to talk about this. We currently are freeing ourselves
►Let’s dig into this a little more deeply: What is the Israeli secularism that you yearn for and
what is the greatest challenge it faces today?
“Israeli secularism is the logical continuation of Jewish Enlightenment and of the generation that
created modern Hebrew culture and literature with all its great writers, thinkers and artists on one
hand and the building of the deep-rooted, modern Israeli culture that was nurtured by the Bible and
Jewish history on the other hand. The type that both renews, creates, and builds, and does not only
regurgitate. This is the new, important, and main link of contemporary Jewish culture in Israel. And
because it does not know this about itself, and since it was so successful in establishing a new state
and culture, it feels comfortable enough to leave behind its Jewish roots in the search for a western,
universal identity as a nation among the nations.
“Alongside that, [Israeli] politics and Orthodox Judaism have done almost everything to cause
Israelis to loathe Jewish culture when they publicly desecrate the name of God under every green
tree in the name of the Torah. So, the blame is double and that in turn doubles the challenge. First of
all, there is reclaiming what is ours, the Jewish bookshelf, and feeling at home with it. On the other
hand, and this is the hardest part, building new Jewish-secular-Israeli language that is authentic –
meaning that it is not religious or New Age. This new language only can be built in secular houses
of study and secular communities via secular Halacha. All this is taking shape and being built right
now at tons of places in Israel and mainly at the secular yeshivas. True, these still are initial steps,
like an avantgarde movement, the vanguard that drags the cart and heifer after it, but even if the
Jewish secular Torah of our time has not yet crystallized before our eyes into a final written version,
it certainly is present as oral law [Torah Shbe'al Pe].”
►Let’s put the cards on the table. I am not sure what you are offering really works. For example, when
I search for lecturers for certain cultural events that I organize and want to
diversify by including secular speakers, more than once, the religious participant is preferable
because he is invested in things to a degree that the secular person, even someone who has
studied for a few years, doesn’t even reach his ankles.
“You are correct to a large extent. When we joined Bina, we were told that our role would be to
create secular versions of the traditional wise student (talmid haham), yet however you look at it, it
is impossible to accomplish that in a program that is only four months long, not even with secular
students who began studying Judaism at university because it interests them. It never will be the
same as the religious educational path of devoting years to religious studies at a religious yeshiva.
We realized very quickly that this would be impossible and that it is not right to make that our goal
since it is not realistic.
“The first upheaval that we are in the midst of, and it still is just beginning, is forging a positive
attitude to these sources and to Jewish culture. Some 90% are unfamiliar and afraid mainly due to
reasons that are not realistic, like politics. They have never encountered the text from an angle that
made it relevant to them. However, when I see students who after four months of studies go on to
study Jewish education, I understand that we are at the beginning of a new path. These teachers are
now starting to teach at schools and are fostering a positive attitude to the Jewish spiritual world,
which plants the seeds for what we would like to see in a secular wise student. We are still waiting
for this student, but I am a realist, not a dreamer. As I mentioned earlier, in the public education
system too, Israeli politics and the various religious publics do not help or make this work easier
and continue to build walls intended to seclude themselves or perhaps out of arrogance. They are
signaling to the secular public that Jewish culture is bound to racist and chauvinistic content, that
the distance separating them from the values of the secular Israeli public is vast, and as a result, our
work is so difficult. We are fighting against the system, against politics, and against the current. So
those who come to us are very special young people who decided to go against the flow and enter
these scary, stormy seas and get to know themselves without relying on politics and the media to tell
them what Judaism is.”
►What type of reactions do these young people encounter when they tell their parents that
they are going to study at a secular yeshiva?
“Their immediate environment is very suspicious and concerned that they are becoming religious.
But we are good and we speak the secular language fluently. Or perhaps, it is more correct to say
that we speak the human language fluently. The parents and friends who come to an event or join a
lesson ask afterwards if they can join and why there is not a program for adults or the general
public. Four months ago, we celebrated the yeshiva’s tenth anniversary and hosted some 200 alumni
and their parents. We all studied together, parents who are truly, authentic secular Jews, what is
known as salt of the Earth. Their children are the sugar of the Earth. So yes, those who were fearful
at first, later showered us with good words.”
►How is the secular yeshiva different from or similar to its traditional counterpart?
“Before we established the yeshiva, we spent a year figuring out: What should our daily schedule
look like? How do you create a beit midrash [house of study] for young people in the twenty-first
century? How do you introduce the knowledge of the world of contemporary education to the
ancient house of study with its traditional pedagogy? We tried to learn from all sorts of models and
our primary goal was to dismantle the selective walls of the yeshiva, which was seen as religious
and elitist. We asked ourselves how to lead a secular person to imagine attending a yeshiva. When a
person enters a yeshiva, there still is a table, book, chair, whether it is in Mea She’arim or
at a religious kibbutz. As educators who are exposed to contemporary research, we know there are
multiple pedagogies and multiple needs of students and multiple methods of teaching and learning.
The most important text that we wrote is the schedule for the yeshiva. It maintains the idea of
multiple worlds of content. The schedule must be varied, even if it is an intensive schedule for the
spiritual world in that it identifies mainly with books. It also is possible to learn via the hands, the
feet, and the heart. Alongside classic series, there are workshops in which the discussion is more
open and intimate, projects involving social and community action, studying with teachers of
different arts, and tours of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is one of the most beautiful texts written in the real
world and those who go through the yeshiva come to know Jerusalem in all its glorious details. That
is one of the reasons they stay here afterwards in our community.”
►How, for example, do you talk about God in the secular world with authentic secular Jews
like you mentioned?
“We needed to find a way to bring him into the conversation. In the first years, it was difficult for us
to include hassidic texts, for example, because that automatically takes one to a very religious place.
The language is very dependent on the context of God. We gradually decided not to be scared to
talk about God or to read a hassidic text and ask what can be learned from it in any case about the
experience of devotion. What is devotion or revelation in the secular world? Just like when a
yeshiva student studies a text that is either found in the prayers or in the folksongs with a partner,
they can have a strong spiritual experience, it is possible to create the same experiences in the
secular world. One of the insights we gained from those first secular circles is that a secular person
is not outside of holiness, but a person who sanctifies the mundane.”
►And yet, despite this explanation, I have reservations regarding the word secular. Maybe
change the name?
“It is impossible to turn the wheel back. It is better to work with the definitions that we have and to
infuse them with positive meaning than to be anachronistic and to try to revive terms from the past.
We definitely identify the interesting phenomenon of people with a secular identity who do not
define themselves as secular, but place themselves on a spectrum as traditional and so on. The word
secular is the last thing that the secular world has to worry about. It is not a matter of image. The
burning issue is the lack of alternatives that secular Jewish education provides today, but if a real
secular alternative is provided, it must be a term that is used with pride, like in the past.”◼