The Power of Intentional Judaism at the Conservative Yeshiva

I believe the work being done at the CY is one of the true successes of Conservative Judaism. I found the Yeshiva to be a magical Jewish learning utopia made from Jerusalem stone.

by Deborah Pollack

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deborah pollackI believe I came out of the womb a Jewish feminist. I have always seen Judaism and gender as beautiful complements, an ideology which has inspired me to wear tefillin at Camp Ramah and to ask my middle school classmates to call me Rabbi Deb. Over this winter break, on a special program called Ta’amu U’ru (Taste and See), I discovered that there is no better place than the Conservative Yeshiva where this belief of Judaism is enacted. The CY, a part of the United Synagogue Fuchsberg Center on Agron Street, is in the heart of Jerusalem. All of the classes offered are taught to an egalitarian audience. All are welcome and encouraged to come and learn ancient and contemporary Jewish texts from a religious and humanistic perspective.

In the morning, I attended a three-hour Talmud class. As someone who attended an Orthodox day school for 13 years, I could already navigate around the daf of Talmud, yet for the first time, I was in a Talmud class taught by a woman. In the afternoon, I took classes on divinity in Rav Kook’s writing, the commandment of moving to Israel, Psalms, Midrash, prayer, and exploring poskim and their opinions on Jews celebrating Thanksgiving. I was able to walk around the Beit Midrash, pick a book of Talmud or Rambam off the shelf, and read. We were constantly surrounded by our Jewish history and Jewish thought. However, what surprised me was how few of my friends from home know about the wonderful opportunities the CY has to offer. For a movement that needs to focus more on textual reading and analysis, I believe the work being done at the CY is one of the true successes of Conservative Judaism. I found the Yeshiva to be a magical Jewish learning utopia made from Jerusalem stone.

My favorite class was taught on one of the first days of my Yeshiva experience. I attended a class on the daughters of Tzlofchad. The biblical narrative centers on five sisters who lost their father, Tzlofchad. According to Torah law, once someone dies, land is passed to the closest male relative. Yet the daughters of Tzlofchad were worried that they would not receive their father’s land since they had no brother. In Bamidbar, Chapter 27, when the daughters confront Moshe about whether they could inherit their fathers land, Moshe brings this question to God. God responds by saying that  “the plea of Tzelofchad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them” (Numbers: 27:7). Rivka Lubitz, a contemporary Torah commentator, wrote that certain cynics say that they are asking for the inheritance of the land for the sake of power, wealth, and equating themselves to men. “What they are doing is not for the sake of heaven.”

The response of these cynics is not unusual even today, and can be found today in response to the same land, Israel. When praying alongside the Women of the Wall with my fellow CY students, a mere two days before learning this text, I received many angry glances from other women at the Kotel. It reminded me of a comment a fellow college student made that I held feminism above Halachah, that perhaps I only wear a talit and lead services and believe I am obligated in every mitzvah because I place my contemporary ideals of gender equality and feminism above Jewish law. Or in the words of the biblical critics, that I wear talit at Camp Ramah or at the Kotel and pray in an egalitarian service for the sake of power or for the sake of simply equating myself with a man – not for the sake of heaven.

The next day, my group prayed in “Ezrat Yisrael,” the lowered platform on the right of the Kotel where men and women can pray together.  There, I put on my talit and proudly prayed in the way I find Judaism the most meaningful – as an equal participant. My classmates and I sang together, danced together, and revolutionized Israeli Judaism together. Rabbi Joel Levy, the Yeshiva Director of the CY, joined us. Rabbi Levy’s ideas and passion toward educating Jews energizes those around him. He accompanies the Yeshiva students to Ezrat Yisrael once a week to pray. He believes in the potential of this space and dreams of it becoming the place for spirited egalitarian davening, Torah shiurim, and alternative services. While not a part of Kotel proper, Ezrat Yisrael can thrive. This follows Rabbi Levy’s incredible vision for the future of Judaism – a Judaism that is thriving and has a physical and ideological space for everyone.

Rabbi Levy’s passion and dream for a more open Israel and a stronger progressive Jewish presence is seen in the work being done in the Conservative Yeshiva. He believes that if every year, the yeshiva educates 60 Jews in how to open and understand a page of Talmud, how to read Torah, and how to see Judaism as pluralistic and open, the impact of the yeshiva is boundless. Rabbi Levy and his fellow teachers at the CY believe in the work they are doing, work that is changing the landscape of Judaism in Israel and worldwide.

I do not believe it was a coincidence that I learned the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad while learning at the Conservative Yeshiva. The daughters asked God for a law to be opened or for an exception to be made when the law would make them lose their land and put them at a disadvantage to men. When Moshe asks God if the sisters can have their father’s land, God replies “Ken,” “Yes,” which has been understood as the meaning the daughters of Tzlofchad were speaking correctly and justly. Ken also comes from the same root as the word kavanah – intention, implying that God found the plea of the sisters to be with the correct intentions. Similarly, the work and ideology held by the Conservative Yeshiva is “ken” – it is just, correct, and incredibly intentional. Rabbi Levy and the incredible teachers of the CY are not doing the work they do for the sake of power, wealth, or for simply equating men and women. The CY sets a model for all Conservative Jewish institutions. They show that it is okay to question and ask how practices can be altered and modernized. It is not only okay, but just for people to incorporate humanistic thought into Judaism, because the teachers at the CY are doing the work they do, in the words of Rivka Lubitz, “for the sake of Heaven.”

The two weeks in December that I spent at the CY showed me how equality, science, feminism, pluralism, philosophy, inter-faith, liberalism, and democracy can be intentionally and justly incorporated into Jewish thought and a Jewish lifestyle. We came together over a daf of Talmud to learn from our texts and learn from each other. I was empowered to learn texts through a Conservative Jewish lens and find meaning in how I practice and learn Judaism. I was able to meet amazing people who are all passionate about the type of Judaism I believe in – a warm and accepting one. Everything we did was with intention and purpose.

While I am still dreaming that when I walk out my door, the New York concrete jungle will be made out of Jerusalem stone, the Conservative Yeshiva gave me a spark that I am happy to bring home. While the life of a Conservative Jew can be incredibly lonely, where most Conservative Jews on a college campus are fewer in number, the work we are doing is “ken” – it is intentional and just. While I have devoted most of my college years and summers to Conservative Judaism, The Conservative Yeshiva allowed me to realize how intentional and just it is to help find a place, access point, and home for any Jew and for yourself. They helped me put intentionality into my Jewish practice. The Conservative Yeshiva must be known as a power force of just, intentional, warm, and holy Judaism.

Deborah Pollack is a junior at Barnard College in New York City.