This is the first in a series of articles that I will upload concerning the Nachlaot area.
As the Capital and religious center of the Jewish people, Jerusalem is home to countless yeshivot – academies for the study of Torah. They run the gamut and represent every sector of Judaism: from the Ultra-Orthodox to the Modern Orthodox and Conservative; from the non-Zionist to the religious Zionist; from the traditional where people study Talmud and Jewish Law all day long to newer schools which mix traditional Torah study with other subjects.
Some of these schools specialize in Kiruv, the Hebrew word for bringing something or someone closer. They specialize in bringing in Jews with little or no background in Torah and educating them as to the basics and even helping them to become serious scholars. In this way they bring Jews closer to the Torah and the Jewish people. People who become observers of the Mitzvot – commandments – later in life without having grown up as an observer are usually know by the Hebrew phrase “Baal Tshuva.” This literally means master of repentance.
In the Nachlaot area there are three new yeshivot. Each one has a different methodology and philosophy towards Torah study with some similarities. Two have programs for people with little or no background and one is for people who are already on a higher level of learning. They are Sulam Yaakov, Mayanot and Simchat Shlomo.
Yeshivat Sulam Yaakov was established in 2006 and is located in an old synagogue on Beer Sheva Street. A gate opens into a small courtyard in front of the entrance to the synagogue. The school was founded by Rabbi Aaron Liebowitz, a long time Nachlaot resident, and offers a Smicha (rabbinical ordination) program. Since it opened twenty four people have received Smicha.
Rabbi Liebowitz says that he founded the school because he felt that it was important to have serious Torah study in the community. He calls it the “anti-kolel” (a kolel is type of yeshiva for adult married men where they receive a stipend to study.) “People pay tuition here and don’t receive a stipend,” he explained.
Sulam Yaakov means Jacob’s ladder, from the story in the book of Genesis. The name was chosen because of the Bible’s description of the ladder, that it was planted in the ground and reached up to the heavens. Rabbi Liebowitz explains that they are, “very grounded but also spiritual.” He wants people to reach a high level of spirituality while never forgetting that their feet are still on the ground. He says that he is also trying to bring Nachlaot down to Earth, a reference to the large Nuevo-Hasidic community in the neighborhood.
The yeshiva has a strong emphasis on spirituality and the development of interpersonal skills. They have a weekly discussion session where the students spend two and a half hours discussing their relationship issues. They teach listening skills. Every day begins with a song and every Monday Rabbi Daniel Cohen teaches the students spirituality. They wanted to be more than just an intellectual enterprise of learning and memorizing Jewish law.Rabbi Liebowits describes this as an “evolution.” He explained that they “wanted to do it differently. We wanted there to be personal growth in our students as well as individuality, thinking outside the box and an ability to see the whole person, mind and soul.” Rabbi Liebowitz feels that most yeshivot lack these things.
He is not alone. Many people think that becoming a rabbi should entail more than just memorizing the Halacha (Jewish Law) and learning the Talmud. The Talmud even says that only a married man should become a Rabbi because being married makes one worldlier and gives him a better understanding of life.
Mayanot began as a small school with only eight students in an old building on Eliyash Street in Nachlaot. The building was on the far edge of the neighborhood near the corner of Ben-Yehuda and King George Streets. The structure has since been torn down and replaced with an apartment building.
The Yeshiva and its dormitories are now located in two former apartment buildings next door to one another in Jerusalem’s Mekor Baruch (source of blessing) neighborhood. Mekor Baruch is located to the North of the Mahane Yehuda market on the other side of Yafo Street. It runs down the hill from there where it meets the Ultra Orthodox Geula neighborhood. It is close enough to Nachlaot to be included in the greater area.
Mayanot also has a women’s program located in the Katamon neighborhood. The students in the men’s program number from 60-80 and in the women’s program from 40-50.
Rabbi Gestetner explained his motivation for establishing the school: “The idea is to offer a program of learning that is intellectually challenging, but also an emphasis on spirituality, especially drawing from Hasidut.” He also believes in offering students a place where they can grow on a personal level.
“Very often yeshivot either have an emphasis on the intellectual,” Rabbi Gestetner explained, “and sometimes the spirituality is lost and sometimes it’s the opposite. Finding the balance and the synthesis is difficult. I definitely felt there was a void in [a lack of] places which did combine these elements of serious learning and spirituality.”
“There are many good schools, but I think that Mayanot has a unique quality where the students have a tremendous level of learning and there’s an incredible communal atmosphere amongst the students and between the students and the teachers,” said Rabbi Gestetner.
Rabbi Gestetner does not like using the term Baal Tshuva. He feels that the term Tshuva applies to all Jews at all times since everyone should always work at bettering himself. That being said, the school does have a tract for people who have little or no background in Jewish learning. This is called the Jewish Studies Program, where students are taught Jewish History, Jewish Philosophy, introduction to Talmud study and basic Jewish laws. The philosophy classes include Hasidut and aspects of Kabala.
They have five levels of Talmud study. “We have tremendous success in teaching students how to learn,” said the Rabbi. It is not easy for adult beginners to master Talmud study. It is written in Aramaic and much of it reads like someone’s shorthand minutes of a meeting. The concepts can also be difficult to understand. Mayanot wants its students to continue learning until they are able to study Talmud on their own.
The school has a Chabad influence, but is open to all strains of Hasidut. They see themselves as working in general kiruv; although, Rabbi Gestetner does not like this term either.
The students are not necessarily Chabad themselves. Mayanot uses the Tanya – a book of wisdom written by the first Chabad Rebbe – to teach a better understanding of Judaism, but it does not have an agenda of making people Lubbavitch. “I want to teach some Tanya so that [its] Hasidut will permeate that person’s being,” said Rabbi Gestetner. The school’s graduates represent all segments of the Orthodox Jewish world from Modern Orthodox to different Hasidic sects. This is in contrast to other schools which have specific agendas as to what they want their students to become.
Rabbi Gestetner dismissed the generally held view that the Chabad work mainly to bring Jews into the Chabad itself. He says that their primary goal is to raise people’s personal awareness of Torah and Judaism. They see a purpose behind the performance of every mitzvah. The Tanya teaches that a mitzvah is a connection to God and so a person, even if he is secular, should perform any mitzvah no matter how small. The performance of a mitzvah ignites something in someone’s soul and connects it to God. According to this philosophy of the commandments, it is important to encourage Jews to perform any mitzvah, no matter how small, whenever possible. Others, however, believe that such performance of mitzvot is only valuable if it leads to the adoption by the individual of all of the commandments.
Mayanot is also one of the largest providers for the Birthright program. They bring more than 5,000 students to Israel every year. The Mayanot program brings all of its participants to the Kotel on Friday nights and arranges for home hospitality Shabbat meals for them.
A few years ago, just before Sukkoth, I was walking across Nachlaot and came across Rabbi Shalom Brodt building a Suka near his house with one of his students. I asked the Rabbi a question about something that I had recently learned about the Halacha of the Suka. The student answered the question with the broad smile of someone happy in the holding of new knowledge.
He told me that the most important thing to know about the Suka is to be welcoming to every Jew who needs a place in a Suka during the holiday. As he said this, Rabbi Brodt was busy connecting parts of the metal frame of his Suka. Without missing a beat and without looking up he said to his student, “the most important thing to know about the Suka is how to make a kosher Suka so that you can fulfill the mitzvah of sitting in a Suka.” As Rabbi Brodt later explained, what the student said was true, but it cannot be done if you do not know how to make a Suka that is valid under Jewish law.
I was impressed by the Rabbi’s statement. With no disrespect intended to the student, sometimes people can get so caught up in the Hasidic/spiritual side of Tora that they forget or do not know the basics. There are too many regulations regarding what constitutes a Kosher or proper Suka on Sukkoth to explain here. The point is just that if you do not know them and, as a result, do not have a proper Suka, then you not only cannot fulfill the basic commandment of “dwelling” in it but you also cannot fulfill the Hasidic/spiritual ends of the mitzvah either.
Rabbi Shalom Brodt is a Canadian who currently lives in a renovated home on Gilboa Street in Nachlaot with his wife Judy. He established Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo in 2002. It is named for Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Rabbi Brodt was a student of Rabbi Carlebach.
Rabbi Brodt is a true follower of Shlomo Carlebach. He follows a variety of Hassidic teachings from the first Lubbavitch Rebbe’s Tanya to the writings of Rebbe Nachman. He does not call himself an independent Hasid – someone who follows Hasidut but who does not attach himself to any of the various Hasidic sects. Instead he likes to say that he is “connected to more than one Rebbe.”
While Rabbi Gestetner wears the more traditional black suit and hat that Haredim wear, and Rabbi Liebowitz wears more every day clothing with a knit kipah that the Modern Orthodox wear, Rabbi Brodt’s choice of dress does not fit into any mold. His choice of wardrobe varies from weekdays to the Sabbath. When we met he wore a solid blue kipah.
Simchat Shlomo offers a wide variety of classes. Students may opt for a full program or take individual classes. Some are only for men or only for women, while others are mixed. The mixed classes have separate seating. The school has somewhere between forty and fifty different students who attend classes each week. The classes meet in the Brodts’ dinning room as well as in the small one room Sephardic Taranto Synagogue next door.
“We were inspired to start the yeshiva by the boss,” said Rabbi Brodt while pointing up referring to God. “I’m not exaggerating. It was almost like God ordered us to do it. The goal was to provide a yeshiva which would offer traditional learning as well as Reb Shlomo’s [Carlebach] Hasidut and to provide an option for people who were not able to attend full time yeshiva programs but who wanted to learn.”
Rabbi Brodt explained that the school is for people who cannot be “placed into a box” and who do not wish to be molded into something. He sees the school’s uniqueness in its openness to people of all backgrounds and all denominations as well as the flexibility of its programs. He also points out that the teachers are not judgmental and are interested in learning with the students in a “joyous and open manner.”
Rabbi Brodt does not like the term Kiruv. He points out that the Lubbavatche Rebbe did not use it either, nor did Shlomo Carlebach. “What they taught us is that every Jew is close to Hashem. You may be more observant than someone else but that doesn’t mean that you’re closer to God,” he said. Rabbi Brodt also dislikes the term Baal Tshuva, but he could not find a word to describe the types of people who learn at his school. The closest he could come was to say, “a Jew who wants to learn more about his Judaism.” Rabbi Brodt said that, “Simchat Shlomo is trying to learn with people in a joyous accepting friendly way and non judgmental, of course. [We want] to learn in a way that people understand that Judasim and Tora are very deep, not just philosophically, but can reach you very deeply in your personal being.”
He wants people to not only learn the dos and don’ts but also what kind of Jew they are meant to be as a result of observing the commandments. For example, what does each holiday teach you about how to be a Jew and not just what to do on the holiday?
These three yeshivot have many similarities. They all try to combine the study of Halacha with spirituality. In this respect each one tries to find the right balance between the two sides of Torah. They all see themselves as being unique in this respect in that they offer something which most schools do not.
It’s kind of like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Some schools are too rigid in their emphasis on Torah study alone and may miss the forest for the trees. Others may emphasize too much of the spiritual and in so doing miss the trees for the forest. Sulam Yaakov, Mayanot and Simchat Shlomo hope to get it just right.
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