Monday, January 08, 2007

A Visit To Machon Meir

Today I paid a visit to Machon Meir, A Zionist Yeshiva which caters mostly to members of the religious-Zionist community,although they accept and seem to encourage secular people too. I say this judging by the incredible amount of slogans in that spirit plastered on the wall in the hallways and in the office where I had my meeting with Rabbi Uri Sharki, who is responsible for the Israeli program in the yeshiva.
I had already met with this particular Rabbi in this particular yeshiva several years ago. I possessed then the idea and wish to study Judaism in some form, but I was simply not ready yet. Rabbi Sharki seemed threatening and overbearing at the time and I quickly ran away from him, from the yeshiva and from the whole idea of studying Judaism - until recently.
But I am getting ahead of myself.

I like to be punctual, and sometimes that means that I arrive too early, especially if I am not sure where exactly the meeting place is supposed to be, and it turns out to be closer and easier to find than I thought. This time my Yekke habits gave me ample time to roam the corridors of Machon Meir and get a first impression. The first thing that hit me was the smell of institutional cooking which permeated every corner of the yeshiva. Personally I am not fond of cooking for the masses - the food never seems to taste as good as it does at home - and to make matters worse they were cooking fish today, and fish, if you do not know, has a very distinct odor which some, including me, find unpleasant, especially when inhaled constantly.
Continuing my stroll, I got the distinct impression that I was back at school - the walls were painted with the same plastic, washable paint, in a standard institutional color, this time a shade of pale, sickly beige.The last time I was at my former school they had painted the walls a pale green, reminiscent of Gollum's skin color. I wonder why do institutions insist on such sickening color schemes - is it on purpose to annoy everybody else? is it a financial consideration?
Anyway, the place had an institutional smell, and an institutional look, and after my meeting with the Rabbi, it turns out - it really is an institution - for better and for worse.

Rabbi Sharki arrived almost on time, and proceeded to give me a very thorough and clear overview of the yeshiva and what it offers: many classes, from morning till night, which fall under two categories of "Emunah" (faith) which he considered imperative for someone with no knowledge of Judaism, and Gmara. The point being that after studying for a certain period of time at this yeshiva the student would have a firm grasp of the basic tenets of Judaism along with the ability to continue studying independently.
Actually, when I write this down it doesn't seem half bad, except that I cannot commit to a full program, and none of this seemed to answer one of my main concerns - the how of being Jewish, the " how to pray(and when) "how to use the tefillin and talith " and so on. The Rabbi suggested a few books concerning halakha and said that if I studied them even for 15 minutes each day, I will soon have a very good working knowledge. To me this seems absurd - obviously I can learn Jewish traditions from a book, but what would be the point in that? Isn't it supposed to be passed from father to son, or at least from one Jew to another? For me this is very important, although to be fair, he did say that if I commit to a larger extent they would also find someone to teach me those things.
But the best thing to come out of this meeting was one piece of advice he gave me - he said that if I went to a synagogue and asked the Rabbi for help in praying and so on then " in any normal synagogue the Rabbi will find somebody to help you". He also pointed out that there are a lot of pensioners in my neighborhood and no doubt some would take much delight in teaching me these things. I will follow this advice and on the way back I already wrote the phone number and prayer times of one of the nearby synagogues.

All in all it was a good meeting. I am happy to report that contrary to my initial impression, Rabbi Sharki does not have two horns sprouting from his forehead, or even a tail. He seems, actually, just a nice guy doing his job as best he can. The yeshiva itself seems like a nice place, especially the new wing which does not reek of fish and has a much more modern, pleasant look to it. The people there were mostly young, wholesome-looking religious men in their early twenties.The corridors were clean, the Rabbi's office was, thankfully,clean and organized, the kitchenette was clean, the lighting everywhere was excellent, and the whole place seemed to be in good hands. I am sure I would not hesitate to recommend this place to anyone interested in Jewish studies, although, to be honest, I myself would not go there, for two reasons - one, I did not feel any passion, and two, I did not feel anything personal.

In the last yeshiva I went to, the guy I talked to seemed to know exactly what I am going through, and also what I need. He was passionate about his life and his belief, and he seemed genuinely excited for me. Even the second guy I studied with, who foisted the story of his life on me, was passionate (to a fault) about the path he had chosen.

Faith, as I understand it, is first and foremost based on feelings, passionate or otherwise. In Machon Meir I did not get that passion or any other emotion, nor did I feel any thing personal going on between us - I was just another student in an endless line of students, to be treated as well as any other - no complaint from me - but no differently either. That is a standard bureaucratic approach which may be efficient, but it is not personal, nor emotional - as faith should be. The first yeshiva was anarchic, with people screaming and shouting over and into each other, in a dizzying confusion of biblical passages. I found it difficult to be there, but I did not doubt for one second the passion of these people. In Machon Meir a pleasant, scholarly silence reins. I'm sure i would have no trouble concentrating there, but I also see no compelling reason why I should - I'm just not attracted to the place.

So, what now?
I can and probably will talk to the Rabbi of the synagogue near me, as Rabbi Sharki suggested. I haven't yet called the guy from Maayanot Hayeshua, and I also thought about paying a visit to the Chut shel Hessed yeshiva, a breslev institution which seems highly geared towards BT. It is on the other side of town but I have come to realize that the right people and the right yeshiva are worth the time spent getting there.I like the breslev idea, and have even read one of his books. I like the mystic side of Judaism (and life in general),and I want to see for myself what a joyous Jew actually looks I'll pay a visit soon.
Meanwhile, as I am writing this post, I get a call from The Chabadnik That Got Away!!
He said he was sure that I was supposed to call back. Really, who is he kidding? Like I said, I am, among other things, Yekke, and if you followed the link you already know this joke:

"What is the difference between a virgin and a yekke? an old joke asked. The answer was that a yekke remained a yekke."

Still, I am glad he called. I liked the guy, and I liked the atmosphere of the place and the extreme diversity of the people who came to pray there. It was very Israeli, and felt very good to me. So I'll be going back to there too.

I guess one way or the other things will work out.

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mother in israel said...

Interesting comments.

If Maayanei Hayeshua calls back, what should I tell them?

I am still eager to hear your analysis of the Adler method.

Jerusalem Joe said...

You can give them my phone number and/or e-mail. In any case I do intend to contact their man, this week or the next, depending on my schedule.

I am working on the Adler essay, hopefully within a month it will be ready.

tam said...

great blog
also see נצח מאיר blog talking on rabi nahmans torah
thanx and shavua tov