HUC-JIR has made history as the home and co-sponsor of Beit Midrash/A Liberal Yeshivah at the Jerusalem School. The study program immerses English-speaking Jews in the traditional texts and practices of Judaism. Requirements include a college degree, basic Hebrew proficiency, and the desire to study intensely in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Na'amah Kelman-Ezrachi, coordinator of the Beit Midrash and professor of Chumash, was delighted with the diverse nature of the founding class: David Nerenberg took a year's leave from his job in the Pennsylvania state government to study at the Beit Midrash, along with another American, Tamara Lawson-Shuster, who had been the Education Director at a synagogue in Ventura, California. These Americans studied with an Australian-born Israeli tour guide and a South African who had just made aliyah, among others.
"A learning and living Jewish community in Jerusalem is a very important statement for the Reform Movement," Rabbi Kelman-Ezrachi said. "It has implications for future Reform leadership, a leadership that's not necessarily rabbinic. [The Beit Midrash] has great implications in building a Reform Zionism. We're sending people back [to the Diaspora] who are going to be empowered by Jewish text."
The World Union for Progressive Judaism conceived of the project as a liberal answer to the Orthodox-oriented yeshivot like the Pardes Institute, which cater to American Jews who want the yeshivah experience in Israel. HUC-JIR became an active and full partner early on, offering its facilities and faculty. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Leo Baeck College also contribute to the project. Rabbi Kelman-Ezrachi, who became Israel's first woman rabbi upon her HUC-JIR ordination in 1992, is a fitting leader for this historic step forward in Jewish education.
Course Work and Community
The Beit Midrash students read texts in the original Hebrew with the help of English translations and class discussions. In keeping with the pluralistic philosophy, students draw on a variety of interpretive sources. "We'll bring anything to a discussion," Rabbi Kelman-Ezrachi said. "From the traditional commentaries, to Bill Moyer's 'Genesis' TV-series or a feminist companion to the Bible. Our study tables are stacked high with books of different sorts!"
Members of the faculty run the gamut of Jewish affiliation, from Reform and Reconstructionist to modern Orthodox. HUC-JIR Professor Paul Liptz teaches Israel Studies, and Rabbi Moshe Silberschein, also on the Jerusalem faculty, teaches Midrash. Rabbi Kelman-Ezrachi suspects that the Beit Midrash may be the only yeshivah in history that has a 50% male, 50% female faculty. A full-time student undertakes a weekly course load of six hours of Bible, six hours of Talmud, and four hours of Midrash. These classes make use of hevruta(traditional study partnerships). "There is nothing quite so illuminating as exchanging thoughts on a text with a good partner," David Crowson, 27, commented. "A synergy builds and we can go places neither one of us could have conceived on our own."
Other classes like "Halachah and Ethics" and "Jewish Philosophy" rely on the more familiar lecture/discussion format. Stacy Palestrant praised this breadth in the curriculum, remarking "I was...grateful that our curriculum was well-rounded and included classes on the history of the modern Middle East and modern Jewish philosophy." Another of the Beit Midrash's strengths is its "experiential component," according to Rabbi Kelman-Ezrachi. This includes prayer workshops at the nearby Progressive congregation, Kol Haneshama, student-led minyanim, Shabbat dinners, and field trips all over Israel.
No "Party Line"
Rabbi Kelman-Ezrachi acknowledges that the Beit Midrash's unique challenge to its students is the absence of a "party line" in interpretation. "The joke in the class - but the frustration, too - is that we don't always give 'The Answer.' We are a progressive liberal yeshivah: We give many answers. That's who we are, and that approach brings me pleasure as a teacher."
Morton Meyerson, an HUC-JIR Governor who spent two months at the Beit Midrash, praised the faculty as "the best teachers I have every studied with." He discovered an unexpected resonance between his immersion in Torah study, with its multiple levels of interpretation, and the systems analysis that had absorbed his business career in the computer industry since 1961. He valued the opportunity to study Tzedakah, noting that "lessons in who and how to help are fundamental to being part of a society that is righteous and stands for values that are practical and humanitarian." Meyerson described the study of prayer, in which "one class lasted over two hours and went by like a minute - I will never hear or say the Sh'ma again in the same way I have all my life up until now."
"The students pose very serious theological questions," Rabbi Kelman-Ezrachi said. "What kind of God is this? Do we have free will? What does the liberal perspective say? No matter what the question," she reiterated, "at the Beit Midrash no question is unwelcome, no comment is unwelcome. No question is judged." Stacy Palestrant affirmed this open attitude of the instructors: "The teachers were knowledgeable, open-minded and inspirational. They created an environment in which I felt comfortable asking tough questions and challenging Jewish belief and tradition."
The Beit Midrash community offers students food for thought and for the soul. "These studies have given me what I was looking for, namely, to recharge the heart, mind and soul," Helen Bar-Yaacov commented. "I certainly would encourage anyone, irrespective of age, to come to Jerusalem to the Liberal Beit Midrash." Back home in Dallas, Meyerson vividly reflects upon his transformative Beit Midrash journey, illuminated by Jerusalem's unique light, the peaceful spirit of Shabbat, the antiquity of the Old City, and the complexity of contemporary Israeli life and politics. He says, "I have started on a path that beckons me..."