Wednesday, March 2
Written by Rabbi Joel Nickerson
We woke up this morning with beautiful, warm weather in Tel Aviv, having spent the night at the David Intercontinental hotel, just across the street from the beaches along Mediterranean Ocean.
Our first stop of the day was a place on the border of South Tel Aviv and Jaffa; a place called BINA. In Hebrew, ‘bina’ means ‘knowledge/wisdom’ and after the death of Yizhak Rabin, a bunch of kibbutzniks established BINA as the only secular yeshiva in Israel. At first, it was a place to teach teachers about the aspects of Jewish tradition that weren’t being taught in the public school system. You may think that Israeli children grow up with a deep understanding of Jewish texts and history, but the truth is, they learn very little. Besides some parts of Torah that they need to know for their final tests, their exposure is extremely minimal. BINA’s goal is to help secular Israelis, mostly those in their teenage years, start to learn and appreciate Jewish texts while linking the learning to the important social justice work that needs to happen in the area around their property. Bina recently moved into property that was the first campus of Tel Aviv University. For years and years, the buildings remained abandoned and the park next to them was known as a place where drug deals and prostitution were commonplace. The Israeli government leased some of the land to BINA and while they don’t have money to upgrade the buildings significantly, they do have some outdoor space and some classrooms that they can use.
Bina provides a few programs for Israelis and foreign Jews. The two we heard about were their ‘gap year’ program for international students and their mechina program for Israelis. The Gap Year program provides an opportunity for international students to come and study at this yeshiva while living in group apartments and volunteering in the neighborhood. Students work with the elderly, spend time with the children of foreign workers who get little attention from their parents who must spend their days working hard to make a minimal amount of money. They also work with the refugee population who live in the area, mostly from African countries. Their other major program is a mechina program – a gap year for Israelis who finish high school and do not feel that they are ready to enter the IDF (army) right away. Israeli offers dozens of mechina programs to these 18 year old Israelis and some years ago, BINA was approved as one of those programs. Bina has about 50-60 Israelis who participate each year, living with each other in the neighborhood, studying Jewish texts, such as Talmud, which they were never exposed to in school, and spending significant time volunteering in South Tel Aviv.
We met two students, one American and one Israeli, who shared with us about their experiences in these two programs and the joy they found in not only volunteering in non-touristy sections of Tel Aviv (slum areas, essentially) but also studying Jewish texts and expanding their Jewish horizons. After meeting them, we participated in our own Talmud study session in one of the classrooms. Many in our group had not studied Talmud before and we had a wonderful discussion about a Talmudic story that was called ‘The Rabbi and the Ugly Man’. It’s a wonderfully structured story that reveals the challenge of forgiveness and reveals the negative impact of arrogance. Afterwards, we discussed the possibility of doing some more Talmud study once we get back to Los Angeles. As I mentioned to the group, studying Talmud brings a whole new perspective to studying Jewish texts that you don’t find when you only study the Torah itself.