Tel Aviv's Secular Yeshiva: Not Your Typical Classroom

Anna Bennett
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Anna Bennett

As soon as you step foot through the door, it is clear that this is not your stereotypical yeshiva: there are no kippot, no black hats, and no prayer shawls. Welcome to the single secular seminary in Tel Aviv.

Established in 1996, BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture was the first of its kind. Founded by scholars from the kibbutz movement in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, the yeshiva was created for two main reasons: to help close the gap between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, and to try to resolve the problems secular scholars had with traditional Judaism.

The question in many of the founder's minds was: How could Rabin have been murdered because of Jewish values? Is that truly Judaism?

Eran Baruch, director of BINA

Eran Baruch, the executive director of BINA, explains the main goal of the center very simply: "The inner most point in Judaism is tikun olam (healing the world), and we are trying to reveal this inner point."

The location of BINA reflects this ideal: situated in the heart of run-down south Tel Aviv, close to the central bus station, in an area referred to by locals as "the lowest point" due to its poverty stricken streets. But its location is strategic, Baruch says, as it allows students to see what work needs to be done in the world, whenever they leave the classroom.

The 200 students of the secular yeshiva study for 15 hours per day, learning to critique not only the Bible and Talmud, but also Israeli literature and Zionist history.

"There are no Ten Commandments of secular Judaism. We are open to any religiosity in our teachers, but we do not tell our students what to believe," Baruch says.

The yeshiva is not BINA's only program. There is a 10-month course for Americans between the ages of 19-30, who study and volunteer around Israel. There is BINA BaShchuna (BINA in the neighborhood) for groups of young Israelis before, during and after their mandatory army service, to come together to learn and serve in the community. There is also classroom-based learning for adults at the Kibbutz Movement seminar center in Ramat Efal.

Seminars in secular public schools around Israel teach Jewish life to students who may have had no prior exposure to any Jewish education. And there is a summer seminar for rabbis, educators, rabbinical students, community leaders and social activists.

These programs aim to reach a large variety of ages and social groups, but are, in the most part, designed for people like Noa Shinar, the seminar coordinator and facilitator.

"I always knew I was Jewish but I couldn't express it because I don't practice," says Shinar of her pre-BINA connection to Judaism. "I came to BINA by accident, through a friend who happened to forward me an e-mail about a job opening, and the moment I walked in I felt at home. I was going to only work here for a year, and now it has been five!"

As for the vision of the future, executive director Eran Baruch dreams of a day when the image of a Jew in people's minds is all-inclusive.

"Today, when I ask my 9-year-old daughter to draw a picture of a Jew, she draws a picture of an Orthodox boy, and I want one day to get to the point where she draws her secular friend with a Jewish symbol next to him, because she knows he is just as Jewish."