Every Thursday between 9:30 am and 11:30 am, you can find the Yahelnikim sitting around a table in the Shapira neighborhood with a Rabbi.
“But I thought this wasn’t a religious program?” “He is just trying to make you more religious so you will move to Israel.”
These are two responses I have gotten when I explain our weekly Beit Midrash (Jewish Text Study). To these questions I say: It isn’t particularly religious and by engaging in Jewish text study, he isn’t trying to convince us to move to Israel.
Even before I met our Rabbi, I loved the idea of Beit Midrash. I wanted to explore the work I am doing in a Jewish context and each of us are, after all, Jewish. And, even if we aren’t religious, we did choose to come to Israel – not Kenya, Zimbabwe or Harlem.
I have always been taught that as Jews, we are not merely encouraged to ask questions, but we are required. This is what most of our meetings with him are filled with and I have yet to leave one conversation “satisfied”. What I have felt is overwhelmed with responsibility, underwhelmed by my Jewish education and knowledge, motivated by Jewish thinkers, but terrified I will never live up to what is required of me.
We study Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber and others (don’t be too impressed, he also taught similar readings to a group of 5th graders… he believes that we underestimate the capacity at which young people can understand the world. I haven’t quite made my mind up on that, but as with most things regarding this Rabbi, he has encouraged me to think a little bit harder and go a little bit deeper).
So far, he has told us to “drop everything and read” seven books. I know this because I wrote each of them down and have begun reading them. This, by the way, is not my style. I am more of a “smile and nod politely” kind of person when a book is recommended and maybe I will get around to it, but I probably won’t. But he is the kind of man and educator who one gravitates to. I am fascinated by him and want to soak up everything I can get my hands on. I can’t quite put my finger on why I am so taken with him but I suppose I can try.
He reminds me of a father that is very hard on his child but you know it’s only because he sees their potential, and would much prefer not to see them settle. But he would also let us settle if that was our decision. There is a dichotomy to him of imparting an enormous amount of responsibility on each person, but also, what appears to be, genuine acceptance should one decide not to engage with it.
He is a teacher and leader: he does not suggest anyone do something he does not himself appear to do. He does not only study and learn, he is an activist and humanitarian.
A couple weeks ago, we studied Levinas who suggests “to hear a voice speaking to you is ipso facto to accept obligation toward the one speaking…” (Four Talmudic Readings, Emmanuel Levinas). He accepts this obligation, at least for us, and challenges us to do the same. He does this often in the context of our lives and experiences volunteering in Shapira, as well as our lives as 20-something, secular, American Jews and I feel blessed to be learning from him. He has brought me to tears, made me laugh, made me angry, made me proud to carry my family’s name, made me ashamed and challenged me to do better. I am changed by him and grateful for him, and I have a feeling I am not alone.
Rabbi Levi D. Lauer is the Founding Executive Director of ATZUM/Avodot TZdaka U’Mishpat. His professional background includes 16 years as Executive Director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies; Dean of the Brandeis-Bardin Camp Institute; and Director of Rabbinic Enrichment at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Rabbi Lauer sits on the Yahel-Israel Service Learning Advisory Board and has supported and worked with Yahel since its inception in 2009.