As part of my year on Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, I am learning in BINA’s secular yeshiva
. A secular yeshiva. What does that even mean?
Answering that needs a bit of history first. The whole idea of BINA and the question of Jewish pluralism in Israel more broadly goes back to the Status Quo, which in Israel refers to the specific political agreement between the religious population and secular political parties to preserve the Jewish character of the state while allowing the secular to proceed as they wished.
When Ben-Gurion made the agreement with the ultra-Orthodox back in 1947, it meant that Shabbat would be the Israeli day of rest, all state kitchens would be kosher, the Orthodox rabbinate would preside over all life-cycle events, and full educational autonomy for the religious.
Today, it means that over 40,000 yeshiva students are exempt from army service. It means any wedding or Bris in Israel not presided over by an Orthodox rabbi is unrecognized. It means that there are tens of thousands of children going through ultra-Orthodox schools without knowledge of any non-religious subjects and therefore unable to join the workforce and contribute to the economy.
Instead, they will drain the economy through government subsidies to continue studying in religious schools.
BINA is aimed at the secular Israeli population who sees Judaism as this Orthodox rabbi who doesn’t pay taxes or serve in the army.
In Israel, either you’re secular, or you’re religious and by religious, they mean (ultra-)Orthodox. This leads to lots of semantic confusion. We say secular and we mean devoid of religion; they say secular and they mean non-Orthodox.
But BINA is trying to change the images of both the religious and the secular, who are oppositely marked as somehow less, empty, heretical and hedonistic. BINA faces secular Israel and asks, “What is Judaism for you exactly? What does being a Jew mean to you?” It seeks a pluralistic Judaism, many answers to the same questions.
BINA was established following the assassination of Yitchak Rabin, which exposed the huge societal gaps between the religious and secular in Israel. But it was also a Jewish murder. As a result, it was a time when many secular Israelis questioned the Jewish narrative and value system.
According to Eran Baruch, the Executive Director and Head of the Secular Yeshiva, the goal of BINA was to “create an institute for Jewish study and action where the conclusion won’t be to murder Rabin.”
For Baruch, Judaism means three things: loyalty to tradition, dynamic change, and a driving purpose/mission. This is reflected in the curriculum of the Secular Yeshiva, which combines study with social action through text study with local empowerment projects.
The physical location of the yeshiva in Neve Sha’anan next to the Central Bus Station, one of the most plagued neighborhoods in the country, is deliberate. It is a reminder of the widow, the orphan, the blind, the homeless, the African refugee, a reminder of our commitment to action.
They house programs like mine, like the high school/college gap year program, the Israeli pre-army preparatory program (Mechina), the army program that consists of study within army service (Gar’in), and the post-army program.
Baruch sees successful graduates of these programs as “studying, being active in their community, keeping shabbat and holidays, and caring. I want them to care.”
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how new and different BINA is.
As a product of the Conservative movement and American Judaism more generally, I always took Jewish pluralism for granted. I didn’t understand how unique American Judaism was until I cam here and saw the polar opposites of Jewish identity in Israel.
It’s sad in a way. That either you embrace religion fully and build your life around it or you denounce and ridicule those who do. BINA gives hope for those who have fallen in the chasm.
But BINA is the first of its kind and the increase in the number and diversity of its programs reflects a growing need in Israel.
This past winter, a second secular yeshiva opened in Jerusalem.
“Imagine ten secular yeshivas all over Israel in a decade,” Baruch tells us. “There will be a change. Maybe I’m too optimistic but sometimes you reach a tipping point and the situation in Israel is reaching a tipping point with the secular and Orthodox. It won’t be too long or too far.”