A home for nobody is a home for everybody

A home for nobody is a home for everybody

Israeli nonprofit Hinam brings together everyone, with no agenda, to learn from everyone, including in Teaneck on Tuesday night

Which view of the world speaks to you?

Is it the world of point/counterpoint? Thesis/antithesis? Black/white?

Or do you see it less starkly? With consensus. Synthesis. And lovely shades of gray — blue gray and slate gray and lavender gray and olive gray and smoke gray and (yes really, my friend the internet tells me) plumbaceus gray and blackish plumbeous gray and purplish gray and pallid purplish gray.

Hinam, the Israeli nonprofit that is visiting northern New Jersey and New York this week and next, believes firmly in looking at the world that second way.

You cannot hate people you know, its leaders say. But if you spend time together, you get to know them. And that also happens if you study together. That’s why Hinam, which got its start with the program it calls Achi Israeli — that translates to My Brother the Israeli — takes young people, at the time of their lives when they’re between identities, free from obligation, and open to new experiences, and provides them with those experiences. It’s a short time, between school and IDF or IDF and job, but it’s very sweet.

The walls of the beit midrash in Abu Ghosh are very old, but the energy they enclose is young.

Hinam’s creator and CEO, Yaron Kanner, also believes in the importance of Jews coming to know each other. That’s what happens on the group’s tours of the United States. This time, 19 Israelis — mainly Jews but some of them Muslim, women and men, some youngish, some older, some older still, some secular, some Orthodox, mainly professionals — have become close to each other as they have learned firsthand about how they live. Now, they are going to share that information with local Jews as they learn more about yet another kind of Jewish life — the American kind. (Which, to be sure, is not lacking in its own divisions and diversity.)

At the same time, the organization — formally named the Hinam Center for Social Tolerance — has opened what it called a “beit midrash of tolerance” in the Arab Israeli village just outside Jerusalem called Abu Ghosh.

“This beit midrash is unique in that everyone, from any identity, can come not only to learn, but to teach anything he wants,” Mr. Kanner said. That’s new, he added.

And it’s free.

That’s not the way it used to be, at least most of the time.

“In the history of the Jewish people, there always were guards at the entrance,” Mr. Kanner said. “There always were guards at the door to the batei midrash,” the houses of study. “In the time of Hillel, they charged money, and when Hillel was the president, the nasi, the first thing he did was to send the guards away. He felt that education should be for everyone.”

But after Hillel died, he said, the beit midrash no longer was free. “It was elitist,” he said. Poor people felt that it just was not for them.

“Today we have other kinds of guards,” Mr. Kanner said. “Unseen guards.” (Apart, of course, from the guards who are positioned outside Jewish and other institutions today, in response to threats of physical violence.) “Ideological guards.

Participants not only learn together, they also cook and play together.

“That means that every beit midrash now has its own identity. It belongs to some ideological house. We have charedi batei midrash, we have dati leumi, we have modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform batei midrash. We even have secular batei midrash, like Alma, and Binah, and Elul.” (All three of those Israeli-based institutions teach Jewish texts and concepts to secular students.)

“It is of course okay to have a beit midrash have an identity. But the main goal of our beit midrash is to bring people together, to get to know each other, through and around the learning.”

That means that Hinam’s beit midrash cannot have an ideology more firm than the desire for its students to learn from each other.

“If you want people to get to know each other in a beit midrash, you have to get them to feel that the beit midrash is their home,” Mr. Kanner said. “Not that they are guests in someone else’s beit midrash.

“Let’s say that you’re an ultra-Orthodox man, and you have come to a secular, pluralistic beit midrash. Of course they will treat you with respect. They might even let you teach something, to give a lecture. But you will always feel like a guest there. It is not your place. There is a very clear agenda — but it is not your agenda.

“What we are looking to create is a place that because it has no agenda, it is home to nobody — and because of that, it is home to everybody.”

The beit midrash, which opened in June, is in “an old and beautiful stone house in Abu Ghosh. We decided that it was the best location for it because we didn’t want just Jews to come. We also wanted Muslims and Christians and Druse and everyone else who wants to come to learn, and to learn about other cultures’ religious traditions.

“They are all invited.

The old building was renovated for its new use.

“In a regular evening in our beit midrash, the village head — he’s the imam — was teaching about charity in Islam, and right after the imam an ultra-Orthodox guy, a chasid, a Nadvornerer, was teaching about charity in the Shulchan Aruch. It’s very interesting to compare charity in Judaism and Islam. And then we can hear a lecture in Talmud from a Conservative lady rabbi, and from settlers and Orthodox Jews and seculars and really everyone.

“It is a mosaic of people and lectures and subjects, and somewhere someone always is eating something.” The language usually is Hebrew, in which Arab Israelis, as Israelis, are fluent, although if there are American groups visiting, the talks generally switch to English. The food often is Arab — often it’s maqluba, a regionally popular tower of chicken, rice, and fried vegetables — but “of course it always is kosher,” he added. “Everyone is sitting together, eating and learning, and through the whole experience — not just the learning, but the entire experience, week after week, when they meet the same people, and talk to them — this way they get to know each other.

“We believe that it really can work, as long as you do it right,” Mr. Kanner said. “You stop seeing a person as Arab or ultra Orthodox or settler or Ethiopian. You start seeing the person.

“When that happens, you see the person behind the label. You will feel more sympathetic to the complexity of his life. You might not agree with his way of life, even if you have different opinions about his choice of moral issues — like maybe not serving in the army — you will not hate him.” (He’s talking there about the young charedim who decide not to serve in the IDF when they graduate high school, leaving that job to their less religiously right-wing peers.)

“After you learn with someone, after you eat with him, you cannot hate him,” Mr. Kanner said. ‘Your conversation will be more soft. More respectful. We believe that this is the main challenge in Israeli society today, the hate between the different groups. The feeling that if you are not 100 percent like me, I hate you.”

There are two main groups who come to the beit midrash, Mr. Kenner said. Most come for the evening, or the afternoon and evening, or even the whole day. Hinam’s been successful at convincing companies to bring employees to learn together. “We had workers from a meteorological services firm,” he said. “It was 60 people, and they came for the whole day. The week before that, the Rothschild Foundation came, along with the heads of the organizations it supports. The Jewish federations of San Francisco came, and the Philadelphia federation is coming.” Birthright groups sometimes extend their stay in Israel to learn at Hinam’s beit midrash, and charedi Jews from Telz-Stone have come as well. It’s a broad range.

Now, the beit midrash is expanding even further, adding Midrasha L’Sovlanut, a program that is set to open in less than two months. Young people fresh from their IDF stints are welcome to stay at the beit midrash (although they do have to pay for it. Hinam does not make a profit, but it does want to break even).

“It’s open to everyone, but it’s mainly for young people,” Mr. Kanner said. “They can stay here before or after their service, and stay at our beit midrash. The second floor now is two apartments, with beds, that can host between 20 and 30 people.”

This isn’t a group you’d expect to find eating together, but they do. All the food is kosher.

Hinam also is planning a gap-year track, so that students from North America can spend the year between high school and college there. “They can come either for the whole year or for just three or four months,” Mr. Kanner said. “We will have a special program for them. The head of the beit midrash will build a learning plan that will suit them.”

This week, 10 Hinam participants are staying in Teaneck, hosted by local families; on Tuesday, April 2, they will be at Congregation Beth Sholom there.

The connection between Beth Sholom and Hinam is a miniature of the kind of relationships that Hinam fosters. It started with the relationship between the Conservative synagogue’s rabbi, Joel Pitkowsky, and David Jacobowitz, a member of Congregation Rinat Yisrael, an Orthodox shul in Teaneck. The two came to know each other through the annual Shabbat afternoon study session that was groundbreaking when it first started, about five years ago (and still has not been replicated in other local shuls). Mr. Jacobowitz is a strong supporter of Hinam; when he wanted local partners, he reached out to Rabbi Pitkowsky.

When a cohort of Hinam travelers came to Bergen County last fall, “David asked me if I would sit on a panel with two other rabbis,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. The panel then included Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, who is Orthodox, and Rabbi Paul Jacobson of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, who is Reform. “I found it really meaningful,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “That’s the idea of Hinam — to break down barriers between groups, to encourage people to think of each other as people, not just as members of rival tribes.

“I heard that members of the group found the panel to be one of the most important experiences they had during their trip. To be able to see a Reform, an Orthodox, and a Conservative rabbi together, and that we are all friendly — that we can talk, and we can disagree, and be friendly — just blew them away.” On this visit, Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai in Tenafly represented the Reform movement.

“I got involved and stayed involved in Hinam because I believe that we should do everything we can do to encourage breaking down the barriers between different groups in Israel,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “It also helps Israelis understand the American Jewish community better, and see that there actually are elements of this community that actually might enrich Israeli life. All that is sorely needed.

“I look forward to meeting new people, making new friends, and breaking down barriers between the American and Israeli communities,” he concluded. “We both have what to learn from each other. It’s a great model for all of us.”

“I first heard about Hinam when the Young Israel of Teaneck invited them in, maybe a year and a half ago,” Mr. Jacobowitz said. “I went, and I was blown away by their mission, and by the diversity of the people who were part of the group. They ranged from charedi all the way through secular, and there were several Arab participants as well.

“I had never imagined a group of people like that who were so open to each other’s narratives, wanted to learn from each other, and were willing to spend time in each other’s neighborhoods.”

He is interested in diversity, he continued, because “I think the key way we can build understanding and community within our Jewish family is by talking to each other. The less we talk to each other, the more likely we are to become entrenched in our own narratives, which often will exclude others.

“I’m not the sort of idealist who thinks that you can just snap your fingers, and everyone will get along,” he said. “In Rinat and in many other Orthodox shuls, there are people who have children who live in Israel, and they live in proximity to terrorists. This leads to a high degree of distrust, which is natural.

“So to get people to be open to the Other, where there is a palpable fear that the Other is out to eliminate you — that’s very hard. Hinam is to be admired for its inclusiveness, its inclusion of non-Jewish participants.

“And it’s the same thing to get the charedim and the modern Orthodox and the secular to sit down with each other and to speak to each other. That is extremely powerful, and it could be very helpful.

“It is to Hinam’s credit that they do it, and hopefully they will serve as a model for more and more understanding,” Mr. Jacobowitz concluded.

Who: Congregation Beth Sholom

What: Will host visitors from the Hinam Center for Social Tolerance and invites community members to meet them

When: On Tuesday, April 2, at 8:15 p.m.

Where: At the shul, 354 Maitland Avenue, in Teaneck

How much: Free

For more information:
Call Congregation Beth Sholom
at (201) 833-2620

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