Spurred on in part by last summer’s protests in the United States and Israel, 40 college students spent part of their semester break exploring Jewish social justice in Israel.
The Yeshiva University students participated in two eight-day experiential education programs beginning Jan. 15. They visited prisons, schools, and kibbutzim and met with Supreme Court judges and religious, governmental, and social action leaders.
Among the dozen students from New Jersey who took part were Erica Pirak of Springfield, Akiva Neuman and Shelley Adelson of Highland Park, Andrew Israeli of West Orange, and Stuart Hametz of Edison.
Hametz and Adelson participated in the university’s “Art at ORT” program; the others participated in its “Tzedek and Tzedaka” track.
Pirak, a graduate of Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth, spoke of a trip to Israel’s only women’s prison, where she heard about efforts to reintegrate inmates into society.
“It wasn’t at all like you see in the movies,” said Pirak, the daughter of Leon and Myra Pirak. “There was an atmosphere of hope and activity and encouragement to move on and build your life.”
Pirak, a 20-year-old junior Jewish studies major, was one of 15 men and 15 women who participated in Tzedek and Tzedaka, specifically exploring the concepts of creating a just society in a modern Jewish democratic state.
Ten other students were part of the Art at ORT program focusing on social activism and empowerment of teens through art. The students helped middle-schoolers from low-income neighborhoods around Jerusalem find ways to express themselves through art.
Hametz, a psychology major, participated in the program at the ORT Spanian School in Jerusalem’s Pat neighborhood, teaching middle-schoolers art and English.
“I loved it,” said Hametz, 23, a graduate of Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High School in South River and the son of Dr. Irwin and Denise Hametz. “One of my passions is creativity in education. I thought it was a fascinating experiment to see how the kids would respond to something creative. They took it a lot more seriously than I thought they would.”
Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the David Mitzner dean of the university’s Center for the Jewish Future, said the program was prompted by the “Occupy” movements and Israel’s affordable housing protests.
“We felt it was necessary to work with these students to clarify the issues and reframe the dialogue with help from Torah sources and experts in the field,” he said. “It is important to us that these future leaders have both a broad world view and a deep appreciation of how these issues are dealt with through the prism of Jewish thought.”
He said the university will help the students translate their experience into teaching opportunities at Jewish institutions back home.
The students were exposed to several “hot-button” issues, including the status of women in Israel and building a just society despite opposition from both Jewish and non-Jewish extremists who reject the founding principles of the state. They also explored tensions between Western democratic values and Jewish law.
Israeli, the son of Judy and Doni Israeli and a graduate of Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, saw such values in action during a visit to Leket, the national food bank.
“They collect food that would otherwise be destroyed and give it to the poor,” said the 20-year-old junior psychology major. “That is one of the ideals and pillars of Jewish life — being kind to others. We know we must never leave our brethren behind — but how far should our benevolence go? We want to be kind and generous in terms of tikun olam but if we keep doing that the government will stop taking care of these people because they know it will get done.”
When their day ended at 3 p.m., the students visited art museums and met with Israeli filmmakers, artists, and musicians to discuss the arts and Jewish education.
Neuman, 21, a sophomore accounting major, appreciated the opportunity to study Jewish texts with the YU scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Hershel Schachter. (Rabbi Assaf Bednarsh learned with the women.)
He was also moved by his visit to a men’s prison. “One tremendous thing I gained from hearing from prisoners is that it doesn’t matter who you speak to — you can learn from everyone,” said Neuman, a graduate of Rav Teitz Mesivta Academy in Elizabeth.
He was also buoyed to learn that many repeat offenders had become ba’alei teshuva, newly religious Jews who study Torah.
The students heard from a three-person panel on religious tensions in Beit Shemesh, where reports of haredim, or fervently Orthodox Jews, harassing an eight-year-old Modern Orthodox girl drew international outrage.
“I got the impression — and I think a lot of people in America got the impression — that this was an Orthodox versus ultra-Orthodox thing,” said Neuman, the son of Sue and Alan Redlich and Isaac Neuman of Brooklyn. But according to a haredi rabbi on the panel, “It was only about 200 extremists, and it was not appropriate by Jewish law to spit at little girls. It was nice to hear, and on the flip side, the beautiful show of unity over the incident bringing secular Jews and Orthodox Jews together was amazing. It’s how it should be.”
Israeli appreciated the program’s mix of classroom and field study.
“We would have a shiur [lesson] in the morning and see that shiur come to life later in the day in terms of giving tzedaka and how much we should give for hesed,” or acts of kindness, said the 20-year-old junior psychology major. “That was just the most inspiring part to see: these texts that have been around for many hundreds of years coming to life in modern times.”