This summer I had the incredible experience of attending a 3-week summer session at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. I’ve been to Israel as both a tourist and a student including a 10-day session at Hebrew Union College as part of my Masters program. This was my first experience, however, attending a Hebrew ulpan (immersive Hebrew language instruction) and studying Talmud and Torah using the original texts (i.e., not translated).
At the CY, I studied Modern Hebrew 5 days a week for 3 hours a day in ulpan. In ulpan, there is no English. Everything we need to say and all of our questions must be in Hebrew! Before ulpan, my Modern Hebrew skills were limited to ordering in restaurants and asking for directions to the bathroom. The college classes I took in Biblical Hebrew were of limited help (it’s analogous to speaking Modern English v. Shakespearean English). Thanks to a wonderful teacher, Nitza, and my motivated classmates, my Hebrew improved greatly.
For three afternoons each week, I studied Talmud with Rabbi Joel Levy, Rosh Yeshiva (Head of the Yeshiva). The portion we studied was a discussion about the Noachide Laws. The Seven Laws of Noah (Hebrew: שבע מצוות בני נח Sheva Mitzvot B’nei Noach) are a set of imperatives which were given by God as a binding set of laws for the “children of Noah” – that is, all of humanity. The Seven Laws include prohibitions against worshipping idols, cursing God, murder, adultery and sexual immorality, theft, eating flesh torn from a living animal, as well as the obligation to establish courts of justice.
Of course studying Talmud is never straightforward. In 27 hours of class time we only translated and studied two pages of text! We spent many hours in small group discussion about the content of the seven laws and whether there were parallels elsewhere in the Torah and/or the Ten Commandments. We also discussed how these laws were enforced (or not) among the non-Jewish population living after the flood.
I also participated in a Tanach (Torah) class taught by Vered Hollander-Goldfarb. Our topic was the story of Jacob and Esau which I thought I knew well. But what started out as a story of sibling rivalry and trickery quickly turned into a much broader statement about transfers of power and morality throughout the Bible. Did you know, for example, that Mordechai is a descendant of Jacob and Haman a descendant of Esau? The prophecy given to Rebecca, that there were two nations in her womb, continues to resonate throughout our Jewish narrative.
The Conservative Yeshiva attracts students from all over the world and from all walks of life. Several students were fellow Jewish educators. Others were academics, clergy, and/or recent converts to Judaism. There were students from the US, Canada, Brazil, Germany, Sweden, the UK, and Hong Kong. The collective experiences of my fellow classmates added to the richness and value of my studies.
When I wasn’t studying, I spent time wandering around Jerusalem. I prayed at the Kotel (Wailing Wall) and put notes in the Wall from our Religious School students. I visited the Israel Museum, Yad VaShem (the Holocaust Museum), the Yishuv Museum, and the Hebrew Music Museum. I traveled to the shuk (market) many times and enjoyed fresh figs, falafel, hummus, bourekas, and other delicious foods.
The CY Summer Program is open to anyone who wants to study in a liberal Jewish environment in Jerusalem. You can drop in for a day if you are visiting Israel. If you are interested in learning at the CY I would be happy to share more of my experiences with you. Thank you to the congregation for supporting my learning and professional development. I look forward to implementing my new knowledge and skills in our Religious School and Adult Education programming.