Early in the morning, in the hills outside Jerusalem, several students are deeply immersed in studying a section of Talmud. They are arguing about Rabbi Akiva, who was tortured and executed by the Romans for refusing to stop teaching Torah.

"He acts like an afflicted saint, and the ministering angels ask, 'This is the Torah and this is its reward?' says Noa Ben-Natan.

"I think Rabbi Akiva knows exactly where he's going, and therefore, he's very much at peace," suggests Omer Ziv. "The truth is, it reminds me a bit of Jesus."

This isn't exactly a standard discussion among typical Talmudic study partners.

"I had never in my life opened a page of Talmud by myself, and in my opinion, I never would have - if not for this program," says Ben-Natan, one of 170 college students who devoted five weeks of their summer vacation to studying Talmud and other subjects from morning to night. The students, both religious and secular, were enrolled in the Ein Prat Academy for Leadership's Elul program, where they immersed themselves in Bible, Talmud, philosophy, Hebrew literature and world literature, among other topics.

While Ben-Natan, a 23-year-old resident of Shoham, had never confronted Talmud before, one of her study partners, Avital Bijel, was well acquainted with religious texts. Bijel was intrigued by her partners' views on the subject - some of which, like the statement that Rabbi Akiva acted "a bit like a jihadist," aren't exactly standard fare in the religious circles she is used to.

"I learned a great deal in religious frameworks," says Bijel, 28, of Jerusalem. "What drew me here is that everyone can bring whatever he wants, that the Torah isn't bound to anything ... In academia, people study together, but here, we've experienced a real togetherness."

Most students say they joined the month-long program - which runs from the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul until the end of Yom Kippur - because they felt a need to get to know Israelis from different backgrounds - something that doesn't happen during their school years when they study in separate religious or secular educational systems.

Many also said they had no acquaintance with Jewish texts and felt they were lacking basic knowledge.

It's an opportunity to learn outside the parameters of grades and obligations, to learn for the sake of learning," says Ben-Natan.

The setting of the program is also not conventional. Students gather not in crowded classrooms, but often outdoors at one of four locales where the program is held. Ben-Natan, Bijel and Ziv debated the meaning of Rabbi Akiva's act while sitting outside at Nes Harim, a moshav in the Judean hills. The program is also offered at Kibbutz Hanaton, Kibbutz Ein Tzurim and the community of Alon.

Each week includes a different series of lectures by both Ein Prat faculty and outside academics and rabbis.

"Rabbi Akiva says he has no life without Torah, like a fish without water," Rabbi Daniel Segal later told the group. "But what's beautiful is that the Talmud doesn't make do with this heroism, with admiration for Torah study. Life is also Torah, even the ostensibly lower sides of life. The Torah is life, and everything in life is Torah."

The class was due to end a few minutes later, to leave time to prepare for Yom Kippur. But despite having been up very late the night before, the students continued their enthusiastic discussion of the topic.

Segal chimed in with a quote from a midrash, a homiletic rabbinic story. "We have an illusion, the midrash says, that the Bible was written long ago, when people were great," he related. "But the midrash says that in essence, there is more Torah being written. We are writing the book now."