Reframing the dialogue

Reframing the dialogue

YU students in Israel to examine social justice issues

Elianna Wolf, left, and Shelly Adleson, both from Highland Park, are seen here with students in the Art at ORT program, which focuses on social activism and the empowerment of Israeli teenagers through art.

A group of Yeshiva University students landed at Ben-Gurion Airport in mid-January and went to prison, then went on to a halfway house for former convicts. Clearly, this was not the usual college semester-break trip.

The 15 men and 15 women were on an eight-day experiential program in Israel, “Tzedek and Tzedaka,” offered by the university’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) to explore the concepts of justice and social justice in a modern democratic Jewish state.

A second YU group of 10 participated in “Art at ORT,” focusing on social activism and the empowerment of Israeli teenagers through art.

“These missions have a reputation for really opening your mind and exposing you to things you wouldn’t normally have access to,” said Yitz Richmond of Teaneck, a sophomore. “They are able to get phenomenal speakers and really explore the issues.”

“Tzedek and Tzedaka” participants studied relevant religious texts and met with Israeli rabbinic figures, government officials, prison inmates and administrators, founders of Israeli non-profit organizations, and social activists.

“Following the social justice movements in the U.S. and Israel this past summer, 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,” said CJF Dean Rabbi Kenneth Brander, a Teaneck resident.

The “Art at ORT” workshop involving Yeshiva University and Stern College students as well as Israeli children. Courtesy of Yeshiva University

Joshua Herbert of Fair Lawn said that the guard showing them around Ramle Prison “described the prison’s philosophy that the prisoners should not just be imprisoned as a punishment, but also as part of a rehabilitation process. We spoke face to face with a man accused of double murder, as well as with a man who was about to be released from prison for the fifth time. I learned about the complexity behind rehabilitation of prisoners, and how difficult it is to truly rehabilitate someone who removed himself from society,” he reported.

Richmond said that observing the spiritual and psychological progress made by recovering thieves and drug addicts living at a halfway house served as an optimistic counterpoint to the prison tour.

“They had really improved themselves, and it was an inspiration to the see how far t’shuvah [repentance] can go,” he commented.

Richmond participated in a session of an ongoing dialogue between secular and observant Jews at Bar-Ilan University, begun following the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin in 1995 at the hands of a former Bar-Ilan student from the religious community.

“It was really eye-opening,” said Richmond, whose Hebrew skills are good thanks to two years at an Israeli yeshivah – ironically, the same yeshivah Rabin’s assassin once attended. “The non-observant students showed true interest in understanding Judaism from an intellectual perspective.”

The YU men and women, traveling in separate groups, also investigated the hot-button topic of the status of women in Israeli society. They heard from a panel headed by Rabbi Dov Lipman of Beit Shemesh, a leader in the struggle to unite the community in the face of violence over gender-separation issues in that Jerusalem suburb.

In a meeting at Leket, Israel’s largest food-rescue and distribution project – founded by Teaneck native Joseph Gitler – the students learned that tens of thousands of impoverished Jewish and Arab Israelis depend on non-governmental organizations to get adequate nourishment.

“The issues here aren’t exactly the same as in Israel,” said Richmond after his return, “but I now see that there are so many shades of gray, from Beit Shemesh to prisoner rehab. These issues are complicated and have to be looked at through different lenses.”

Another Teaneck participant, senior Moshe Karp, recalled learning from Israel Supreme Court Justice Neal Hendel, a former New Yorker, how Israel brings Jewish concepts into its legal system. “Even in a secular society you can still have a goal of incorporating Judaism into it,” he said. “Questions of secular society and Judaism come up in America, too, in slightly different ways, and I hope to put them in the proper balance in my life.”

Along the same lines, Herbert described their visit to the Reali School in Haifa, where students use a “Sanhedrin system” to debate problems and decide on a course of action. “Although it is a secular school, Reali uses the Torah as a guideline for their issues that range from money matters to moral and ethical dilemmas,” Herbert said. “I learned how powerful the Torah is in its ability to instill a strong Jewish identity even in a secular school.”

Brander said that applying what they learned to Jewish life in the United States is a primary objective of the CJF trips.

“As young Jewish leaders, they must begin to see every experience as an opportunity to teach others and strengthen their local Jewish communities,” he said. “Once the participants return to campus, we spend time helping them understand how to translate their experiences into teaching opportunities at Jewish educational institutions throughout North America.”

The other North Jersey participant in this program was Leah Goldstein of Passaic.

Art at ORT gave 10 men and women the opportunity to lead workshops on graphic design, filmmaking, and music for 160 Jerusalem middle school students from low-income neighborhoods.

Passaic resident Elianna Wolf, a junior at YU’s Stern College for Women, said most of the children had no previous access to the materials used in the program. “It was really therapeutic,” she said.

One of the projects involved having the kids describe two true things and one false thing about themselves, she said. “They loved having someone listen to them talk about their families and lives.”

Wolf said one of the students seemed “shut down” despite her attempts to draw him out. On the final day, however, when parents came to view the gallery of projects, the boy’s father told the YU students that his son raved about the program.

“It showed me you cannot give up on these kids,” said Wolf, a junior majoring in psychology. “I wasn’t such a huge ‘art person’ before, but I would love to do play therapy when I’m older.”

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