With college seniors facing one of the worst job markets in recent memory and downsized professionals scrambling to plan their futures, graduate schools across the United States have seen applications soar. But such institutions of higher learning – whose schools of government and public policy have seen some of the most drastic growth in applications, according to The New York Times – are not alone in expanding their rosters; joining them are Jewish yeshivas and seminaries, whose spiritual atmospheres are appealing to a generation finding its place in a world in crisis.

At Jerusalem’s Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies, a Chabad-Lubavitch educational center designed for people who did not necessarily grow up with formal Jewish instruction, officials have been poring over a substantially larger pool of applicants, among those an increased number of students deferring enrollment to graduate school.

Jared Goldfarb, who completed his finance undergraduate degree at Ohio State University in January and plans on attending Mayanot in the fall, noticed a change among his classmates’ plans for next year.

“People are asking more questions [because of the economy] but the shock has not been severe enough to alter things completely,” reported Goldfarb. “There is a bit of a trend, though, away from materialism and towards other things, including Judaism.”

Goldfarb, who is currently wrapping up a spring semester spent studying at a Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva in Cinncinati, said that even high school students are seeking spiritual answers for problems in the world today.

“A local private high school asked me to give a class on ‘Kabbalah of the Market Crash’ at their Jewish Club,” he related. “Their chemistry teacher mentioned to me the following week that the students had been talking about the class afterwards and were really into it.”

A Talmud class at Mayanot draws students of different ages and backgrounds.
A Talmud class at Mayanot draws students of different ages and backgrounds.

Beyond the Material

Some of the fastest growth at Mayanot can be seen in its women’s program in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, where 40 students currently study. The institute expects to enroll 70 women this summer, more than a 50 percent increase.

The men’s program, meanwhile, expects 95 students to enroll in its English and Spanish-language divisions this summer, an increase of 25 students over the previous year.

And the applications for next year’s programs continue to pour in, said Rabbi Chaim Moss.

“Every day, we are receiving new applications for the fall,” he said from the men’s study hall in the Mekor Baruch section of Jerusalem. “We will probably take approximately another 30 students.”

“For sure the situation in the world has set people thinking, and it is natural for a Jew to turn to Jewish tradition,” said staff member Chaim Shalom Kerity, who attended Mayanot. “It isn’t about finding easy answers; it is about realizing that material pursuits aren’t everything.”

Chaya Goodman, a 28-year-old American who finished her first year of study at Mayanot this past December, praised the institute for allowing her “to keep the integrity of where I was coming from. No one ever excluded me because I had questions.”

The emphasis on building skills and independent study, she said, is aimed at empowering students to research and think through possible answers to the questions they bring with them. Lectures give students a feel for the theosophical approach of Chabad Chasidic thought, while other aspects of the curriculum concentrate on in-depth study of Jewish Law, beginning with the Mishna.

David Dresher, who took a year off before law school to study at Mayanot, said that the goal of enabling students to explore the texts themselves is a primary reason why students who are searching for deeper answers to spiritual questions choose to attend.

“The yeshiva isn’t telling us how to think,” he said, “but instead, they are giving us the tools to analyze texts and to be able to understand the deepest concepts in Chasidic thought. People leave here knowing how to continue learning.”