Yeshivas, or Jewish schools focused on Judaic studies, can often be a source of mystery to people who have not experienced their beauty. They sound dry and boring. However, there are many people that turn their lives inside out to devote themselves full time to yeshiva studies.
The following is the story of three yeshiva students who all attend Mayanot Yeshiva in Jerusalem, a school that is open to students of any experience level. They all took different roads to their destination, but they all have much in common. They sacrificed their day to day, comfortable lives for a chance to connect with their Judaism and G‑d.
Why did they come halfway across the world just to study some dusty old books?Why did they leave their lives? Why did they come halfway across the world just to study some dusty old books? What does yeshiva mean to them now that they have tasted it?
Let's ask them.
Meet Zachary Joseph Dorfman, an eighteen year old from Beverly Hills, California. Zach is the kind of guy you simply can't ignore. With his huge smile, exuberant energy and explosive laugh, he commands the attention of everyone around him.
Unfortunately, it was this energy that first pushed him away from Judaism. He has ADHD, and has had it since he was young, so he often had trouble succeeding in his Jewish day school.
"I was in a conference with my dad and the Rosh Yeshiva (dean of my yeshivah), and... oh, man, this is crazy... The Rosh Yeshiva said, 'sorry to tell you, but your son isn't gonna make it through middle school, he won't get to high school, he's not gonna make it to college, he's basically not gonna have a life.'"
It was experiences like this, a feeling that his mentors were not practicing what they preached, that made Zachary feel as if Judaism was hollow. Full of empty words and fake leaders.
"Everything I learned in Jewish day school felt like a lie."
So, while he succeeded
As he came closer to feeling like a full Jew again, he connected more and more to G‑d.
in his new private school, he slowly stopped keeping Shabbat. He graduated from high school with a 3.96 GPA but also started eating non-kosher food. He was one of the three choices for valedictorian but took off his tzitzit.
When Zach went to college, though, he began reconnecting to his roots. He started spending Shabbats at the Chabad House. But he still felt disconnected, for the most part.
Until one day. His friend was driving him home in his car, and, "all of a sudden he makes a right turn and hits three parked cars. And he drives off."
"My car was so messed up, I don't know how we made it back home."
The next day, Zach found out that his friend told the insurance company that Zach was the one driving. Feeling completely helpless, Zach turned to the only place he felt he could.
"That Shabbat I went to synagogue. I went to synagogue on Yom Kippur. I cried at the synagogue. I cried to my father.
"I had tears coming down my eyes, bro."
That Sukkot, Zach's father walked into his room. As Zach started trembling, his father gave him the news.
"You're off the hook. The insurance company did their own investigation and they determined that your friend was driving."
With relief flowing through him, Zach knew who to thank. He knew why his road had taken him on this insane journey.
"Since then I've tried never to lie to my dad. I've kept Shabbat. I became president of Chabad at my school."
As he came closer and closer to feeling like a full Jew again, as he connected more and more to G‑d, Zach signed up for Birthright. "And I decided to do three weeks at Mayanot."
Uriel Laio, on the other hand, is a quiet and soft spoken person. If you can't catch him studying, he is often found planting in his garden outside the dorms or finding ways to naturally pickle through fermentation. In fact, the only thing he and Zach seem to have in common is that they are both from California.
Uri grew up with little Jewish education. After his Bar Mitzvah, he essentially moved on from any form of religious Judaism. As far as he was concerned, Judaism "was a cultural thing."
Much of the
Much of the spirituality that Uri experienced was in nature.
spirituality that Uri experienced was from his experiences in nature with his parents growing up. From hunting with his dad to backpacking in the High Sierras to gardening, Uri was constantly out in nature. Compared to Judaism, nature seemed much more exciting.
In high school, however, he began to realize there was more to his religion than he realized. He started a program that combined learning with Shabbatons. "That was the first time I realized Judaism wasn't the dry, boring experience I had when I was younger."
Uri continued to have moments of revelation, such as a visit to Israel that made him realize the connection of nature to G‑d. As he hiked to the top of Massada, his group left each of them alone for half an hour to contemplate on their own.
"It was the grandeur of nature. I was sitting on this rock on the edge of this cliff, with a huge valley before me, and the water sparkling, and the sky, and I just started crying. I felt something beyond me. That was my first spiritual experience.
"But for the most part, my day to day experience wasn't like that."
Even as he entered college, Uri still didn't feel totally connected to Judaism or G‑d. "I had no direction in my life. There were things that I did but I didn't have something that I felt that I was living for. I was alive but I wasn't living for anything."
After a few years feeling unfulfilled as a Jew, despite living in a Jewish co-op and still regularly attending Jewish functions, Uri decided to go and devote himself to full time yeshiva study. His rabbi recommended Mayanot. Three years later, he is still here.
From what I know about English people, they are reserved, calm and quiet. Yitzchok Nussbaum, thirty years old and originally from Newcastle and then London, cannot be described with any of those adjectives. Around Mayanot he is known as the class clown, but a clown with heart.
Like some students at Mayanot, Yitzchok grew up, "kind of Orthodox." He "kind of kept Shabbat" and ate kosher meat.
Although he went to a Jewish boarding school, he never truly felt connected to his learning. "I just didn't like school. I hated being in a classroom," he said.
After graduating from school, Yitzchok spent a lot of time jumping around different professions and studies, never quite feeling as if he fit in. "I attempted going to college, but that didn't work. And so I tried working."
He quickly tired of his work, finding it unfulfilling: "So I went to Israel for ten months."
Throughout Yitzchok's life,
Around Mayanot, thirty year old Yitzchok Nussbaum is known as the class clown, but a clown with heart.
his connection to Judaism always lived strongly within him. Even after he left Israel and began working with MTV editing music videos, he knew there was a part of him that was always connected to G‑d. As he was opened up to a world of "you know.... sex, drugs and rock and roll," he still knew that being Jewish, "this was not the way I was meant to live."
The more Yitzchok felt alone and disconnected the more he remembered his connection to G‑d. The more he felt as if he had to address it: "I've always believed in G‑d. I just decided not to have a relationship with Him."
Finally, he came to the moment when he realized he had to address it. He realized that while, "it was much easier to go out and get drunk," he was ready for a change. Ready to face his relationship honestly and openly.
So what happened to Zach, Uri, and Yitzchok after they came to Mayanot? What effect did it have on them? Where are they now?
On Zach's first day he called his parents. He no longer wanted to stay in yeshiva for three weeks. Then and there, he decided he wanted to stay for a year: "That first day was beautiful. It was a beautiful thing to be here. I had to stay longer."
Somehow, within a day, Zach realized that, "they taught you that Judaism is a beautiful thing because you can do it at your own level, your own pace, the way you want to do it." Wanting to take advantage of that as quickly as possible, he called his parents and told them he was staying.
With their blessing, he has been a student at Mayanot for four months now.
And Uri? Uri is still very much involved in nature and farming, but, "Today, my involvement with agriculture and nature is a big part of my spirituality." Through learning, he has combined his Judaism with his spirituality.
What has kept Uri here for the better part of three years? How has he been able to combine the different parts of his life with his spirituality? As he puts it, "When people speak in terms of G‑d, they're usually talking allegorically or metaphorically. Not G‑d." When he came to yeshiva, he finally found people who were "talking about 'G‑d the fact.' G‑d as he exists." This shift, bringing spirituality down to something tangible, something he felt he could see around him, is what helped Uri see G‑d in the life he lived. In nature and agriculture. And in everything else.
Yitzchok, like the others, decided to extend his stay in Mayanot. And like Uri, he still plans on being involved in his dream job: comedy. "I haven't given up on my dream in comedy."
What has kept them all here? What has made them all feel as if they needed to stay at Mayanot?
Although they all are such different people, they all gave quite similar responses to these questions.
Because the rabbis are on fire, the students light up.
They all say, "Any Jew can come here and just feel at home." They describe how the rabbis at Mayanot teach the "traditional way of Jewish life, and present it in a way that's not intimidating or condescending." This is something that as students with little or no experience as Jews, they felt was necessary. And something they all agree Mayanot does exceedingly well.
What is it about yeshivas that people find so inspirational, then? Why do they feel so at home and at peace, so willing to give up their material comforts, jobs and lives to come and stay for a month, a year, or years?
As every single student agreed, it's all about the rabbis. As Uri says, "It's moving and inspirational to have teachers who are first of all inspirational individuals.
"They give away time to farbreng with us. Talk with students who need help. They give up Shabbats to be with us. Some of these rabbis teach at three or four different yeshivas on a weekly basis. And it's because they're on fire."
And because the rabbis are on fire, the students light up. The students come here and find a spirituality they never knew existed. A relationship with G‑d they never knew they could have.
It's no wonder, then, that when I went to interview one of the rabbis for this story, that I came away feeling inspired. As we heard students playing music in the background outside, he explained the mission statement of Mayanot: "Ahavat Yisrael (love for every Jew). That Ahavat Yisrael is not just a mitzvah. The most important thing to yourself is your soul, not your body."
This is why yeshivas try not to erase their students' personalities, but to bring their true personalities out: "Ultimately, we look for them to be themselves. Who they ultimately are." Thus, Uri can find spirituality in nature. Yitzchok can find G‑d in his comedy.
In the end, they are looking for the students to realize that who they ultimately are is infinite. That, "there's nothing he can't do. He's an infinite being."
It is as students truly begin to understand this, truly begin to grasp it, that they are lit on fire. That they are able to realize that career, family and life are not mutually exclusive from spirituality and G‑d, but are in fact, completely intertwined with them. With Him.
It doesn't take long for all the students to feel like Zach did on the day I interviewed him: "All the stuff I went through... school... the drunk driving... I'm on the top of the world. I'm a king."
To learn more about Mayanot, visit their website.