It could be the effect of binge-watching “Shtisel,” or the result of familiarity with the traditional Jewish house of study, the beit midrash, as it existed for millennia: When one hears the word yeshivah, what typically comes to mind is Orthodox Jewish men, seated across from each other at rows of tables or side-by-side in front of lecterns, engaged in lively discourse over open tomes of Jewish texts.
So why is the opening of the District’s first yeshivah sparking excitement among members of the Reform community?
Chaim Merrill, 57, lives with his husband in Columbia Heights and works as a computer scientist. A member of Temple Micah, Merrill “loves being Jewish” and studied for three years before his conversion. Six years later, he is excited about the prospect of learning in a yeshivah setting. He particularly wants to study Talmud and midrash and dig deeper into Jewish thought, history and liturgy.
“I like the in-person community environment that I imagine [the yeshivah] will provide and the camaraderie of fellow students, as well as the academic aspect,” he said. “I’m really excited about the possibility of this school because, prior to this, I had not considered yeshivah as an option. I didn’t feel I would be welcome. I need a place that will accept and hopefully embrace my queerness.”
Last week, Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue’s rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, announced that he is leaving his position with the Orthodox synagogue to open Yeshivas Reb Elimelech.
The yeshivah will have men and women learning together and welcome anyone interested in serious Torah study regardless of religious background, sexual orientation or gender identity.
In an interview on Tuesday, Herzfeld said he’d been thinking about opening a yeshivah for many years. The plan is for Yeshivas Reb Elimelech to officially open its doors in the spring of 2022. In addition to a study hall, there will be space for boarders who join the yeshivah’s residency program. While the study hall will be open to men and women, the residency program will be men-only until Herzfeld can secure a separate site to house a women’s dormitory. “We’re going to reach out to kids who are in college or who just graduated college and offer them the residency if they’ll commit to the program of the yeshivah,” he said, but “anybody at any age can attend the classes.” (As to whether the dormitory would be open to trans male students, Herzfeld said the question was “premature” at present.)
In addition to what Herzfeld referred to as the standard yeshivah curriculum — “spending time every day in intense gemara [Talmud] learning and studying Jewish law” — Yeshivas Reb Elimelech will also offer text-based classes in Tanach, Mishna, Talmud and Jewish prayer and philosophy that take more of a page- or chapter-a-day approach. Many of the classes will be available on Zoom as well in an effort to reach as large an audience as possible.
Jessica Katz, 35, said the yeshivah setting appeals to her because it is often better equipped to teach basic Judaic literacy and research skills, she said: “Studying in a yeshivah doesn’t just teach you what the ‘Talmud says.’ Yeshivahs teach how to study Talmud.” She says she would be interested in classes that explore the history and context of certain books or breaking down Talmudic logic. “I wish I had more opportunities to just practice decoding it and improving my biblical Hebrew,” she said.
A self-described “Conservative Hebrew School drop-out,” Katz became interested in Judaism again after attending an Israel trip for Jewish educators. “The leader of that group asked us, ‘What is the difference between our synagogue and the church across the street?’ He said, ‘The answer is the Torah.’ Then I knew I wanted to learn as much as I could,” said Katz, who worked as a teacher before shifting into her current role as a stay-at-home mom.
After a year at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel, Katz returned to D.C. “thoroughly Reform.” She and her spouse met at a study group at Temple Micah and live on Capitol Hill.
At Pardes, Katz said she observed conflict between those engaged in study for the sake of study and study for application to daily life. “To many students, studying these ancient texts means sifting through for wisdom on how to live our best lives. I think too often it is taken way too literally and strictly,” she said. “I don’t think that fits in modern Judaism. But people try to bring the old ways down to today and it impacts their worldview and open-mindedness. If the new yeshivah is a place for hevruta [study partners] and then people go to their respective homes, it won’t matter so much what their hevruta does with their takeaway. I hope it can be a place where people can say what they really believe and accept when others reciprocate. That would be good for Judaism.”
Herzfeld identifies himself as an Orthodox rabbi, and while the yeshivah will not be affiliated with or accredited by any specific institution, he said it will be an Orthodox yeshivah “affiliated with the Torah” and the instructors signed on to teach so far are Orthodox as well. (He declined to share the names of any local community members who have already agreed to teach.) He would potentially welcome non-Orthodox instructors with expertise in their subject matter, he said, but “the goal is not interdenominational activity. The goal is the study of Torah.”
The binding aspect of Jewish law and customs is a foundational part of Orthodox Judaism. How does Herzfeld intend to balance some prospective students’ desire to learn Torah with their desire not to be told what to do by it?
“It’s a fair question,” he said. “I think that our purpose is to create a place for intense Torah study, where people are intensely committed to recognizing that the way to improve the relationship with God, the way to have an impact in the world comes through a connection with, a close reading of, our ancient sources.”
“I think there is a space for that in this world right now, because if you go to the left of, let’s say, Yeshiva University, most of the places or rabbinical schools are professional schools,” he continued. “While we’re not afraid to offer ordination to a worthy candidate, that’s not the purpose of this. The purpose in that is not to create professional rabbis. The purpose is to help people go down a path of intense Torah study for life.”
Rachel Kohn is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelKTweets.