an experiment of learning in the judean hills

recently, i went on a morning field-trip to morasha ein prat, a fascinating israeli yeshiva, that combines jewish and secular studies. their students are an intentional mix of religious and secular israelis, who decide to take a "gap year" between high school and beginning army service, or after they complete their 2-3 years in the army.
ONE OF THEM is gestating in the Judean desert, down the road plunging from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. A mile or so off that road, I recently drove along a winding track from the village of Alon to a cluster of caravanim. In the semi-permanent prefabs, housing a dining room and kitchen, a study hall and separate sleeping/living quarters for men and women, about 25 young Israelis were spending five months in exquisite isolation at the Midrasha.

They came from secular kibbutzim where children don't know what a Shabbat kiddush is or ever go to synagogue or see a mezuza on doorways; from Orthodox Zionist families; from Israel's Reform and Conservative movements. Ages 20-29, most of them had completed at least two years of army or national service and were taking a breath - not to space out on Goa beaches, but to build their inner selves before heading to university. Some were officers from elite IDF units.

Strangely devoid of self-consciousness or cynicism, these young men and women, some of whom had already experienced social and military responsibilities beyond their years, spoke about holes in their learning, about what they might contribute to society, and about wanting to know more about the meaning of being Jews and Israelis.
the head of the program, micah goodman, has compared the student body at ein prat with the student body at pardes (one of the places where i study in jerusalem). in both places, the students tend to be in an "in-between" moment of their lives, interested in growing spiritually and jewishly, in a non-coercive environment, and often aren't sure what they want to be doing next.

goodman is especially intrigued about the possibilities about bringing these two groups of students - the israelis at ein prat and the mostly americans at pardes - together in some type of sustained way.

in some ways, morasha ein prat, where secular israelis engage in jewish learning in a non-coercive way, is an example of the same phenomenon that produced bina's secular yeshiva (hayeshiva hachilonit) and alma in tel aviv.

although in this case, there is a stronger sense of community - the students live together and have to figure out communal norms (such as how to respect everyone's differing shabbat practices). keep in mind, though, that the framework of religiousity, is an orthodox one, and some aspects of jewish creativity seem to be outside the box.
At the beginning of the year, the students set the rules for themselves, and every week gather for a plenary session lasting into the night in order to discuss their lives, at the program and in general, and to make new decisions. Because this is a group that includes religious and secular students, they have to set the rules for themselves in this area as well. The status quo dictates that there will be no violation of Shabbat and that kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws) will be observed in public places (the dining room, the classrooms, et al), while in the rooms, which are also shared by religious and nonreligious students (but not by men and women), everyone will do as he wishes. It turns out that when things are not imposed by force, there is maximum consideration of the religious students on the part of the secular ones, even in their private rooms.
there's one other important issue. the yeshiva is located in a west bank settlement, in allon. This settlement, is located near kfar adumim, on the road from jerusalem to the dead sea. unfortunately, most israelis, and the students who i spoke to at ein prat, don't really consider this to be a settlement. for them, a settlement is defined relatively, as a bunch of trailers on top of hill, with crazy right wing, long-bearded immigrants from brooklyn, near nablus of hebron. not by the 1948 armistice lines. these "settlements" are really just suburbs of jerusalem. they'll be ceded to israel as part of a land swap in any future peace deal, so why all the concern?

but, if you ask the palestinians about the ma'ale adumim corridor, they'll tell you a much different story.

in addition to the learning and discussions, we also did some hiking (which in israel usually involves climbing up or down some really steep cliff face with questionable footing).

in this case, we climbed down into the wadi prat, which once was part of the biblical border between the israelite tribes of judah and benjamin. we also saw the maboa spring:
an artesian fountain, or karstic fountain, emanating from a cave into a roundish concrete pool. until the six day war, the water was pumped and streamed from ein el-farha to jerusalem, but today it is no longer being used. ein Mabu'a supplies its water today into a concrete aqueduct that was built on the face of an existing aqueduct from the time of the second Temple and had brought water to the city of kipris. the round pool water's height is changed constantly (like heartbeat) due to a subterranean movement of water that fills an inner room until it is full and then the water would be let outside en masse into the external pool.

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