How Will Israel Change?

Is a quiet revolution emerging from EinPrat in the Judean desert? Dr. Micha Goodman thinks so. A weaver of dreams and reality, he predicts that new charismatic Israelis and transformed secular Jews are taking what they experienced living and learning at the Ein Prat Leadership Academy out into the world.  Micha hopes they will change Israel.

The men and women who spend a month or four months in residential programs at Ein Prat are from what New York Times columnist, David Brooks, named the Odyssey Generation, the decade of 20-somethings, a time of wandering. Brooks observed: “They go to school and take breaks from school; they live with friends, and they live at home; they fall in and out of love; they try one career and then another.” 

For most Israelis it is the time following two or three or more years of army service when many have carried responsibilities far beyond those of 18-plus-year-olds in other places. It is a time for getting out of small Israel surrounded by its turbulent neighbors, and “Going to Hodu,” specifically meaning India, but signifying wherever Israelis escape with their backpacks after the years in national service. The Odyssey Years encompass before and during university.

Micha Goodman, 39, founder  and head of the Midrasha at the Ein Prat Academy, pauses to watch you absorb. He describes the Odyssey Age as “the time when people have the maturity of adults without adult responsibility; a time when they are open to examine everything. They are relaxed, not ambitious, but very curious about what they want to be.”

In 2005, barely out of the Odyssey years himself, but only one year away from a PhD in philosophy from Hebrew University, Micah launched the Midrasha’s first program. He recognized searching among young Israelis to know who they want to be as Jews and Israelis  and, among those who are secular, a desire to know and to possess Jewish texts that never seemed to belong to them.  That first year Ein Prat, near the village of Alon, offered five students a faculty chosen for their passion for what they taught; an environment where all ideas could be expressed; the opportunity to learn classic Hebrew texts–Bible and Talmud, Western Philosophy–Dante, Augustine, Shakespeare, along with Zionist history and thought; and yoga and hiking in the desert. A four-month program began, today called Mabua, for post-army, pre-university Israeli Gen-Odyssey. Twice a year it offers no degrees, no exams, simple living on the Alon campus in pre-fab structures, a requirement to be there 24/7 in a community of religious and secular men and women, to make meals together, and to figure out how to live with people, many quite unlike yourself. Amd for this they pay tuition.

Today, in its ninth year, each Mabua session accepts about 50 participants–men and women–from double that number who apply, a total to date of 575 students. 

Recognizing that there was a somewhat older cohort who didn’t have four months to spend on themselves, Micha Goodman and Rabbi Dani Segal began the Elul program, modeled on Mabua but lasting only 40 days, from the first of Elul until Yom Kippur. This was the month before universities resume. What began tentatively in the summer of 2007 with 26 participants at Ein Prat, by 2009 had outgrown the Alon capacity. This year 250 students came to Elul programs at Ein Prat and three additional locations at Kibbutz Hanaton in the Galilee, at Kibbutz Ein Tsurim, and in the forest at Nes Harim–each one a self-contained  community of learners. Inbar, now on staff at Ein Prat after her Elul experience in 2008 observed: “I came for the adventure, but I discovered I was missing something. People who have a hole, don’t always know they have a hole.” 

While Mabua and Elul expanded, something happened that came not from Micah or staff or faculty, but from the graduates themselves. Motivated to continue learning together using their skills to do it on their own, motivated to identify problems/gaps in Israel that needed fixing, they began to take Ein Prat outside. 

Ein Prat responded to their initiatives two years ago with a pilot “Beit Prat” alumni center in Jerusalem, followed last winter by centers in Tel Aviv and Beersheva, today run by alumni assisted by six Ein Prat staff and 100 volunteers.

Each week Beit Prat Jerusalem hosts a core group of about 100 men and women, mostly Ein Prat alumni. On Sunday and Wednesday evenings last spring, they organized 15 study groups and a roster of lectures from 6PM to midnight including “The Encounter between Judaism and Modenity,” “What Is the Mishnah,” Conservative Judaism in Israel,” “Talmudic Stories on Beauty,” “Jewish Identity and Religion and State,” and “Writings of Rav Kook.”  And on other days Beit Prat hosts Kabbalat Shabbat, sometimes shabbat dinner, tours and special events to strengthen the community. On Yom Haatzmaut, Purim and Yom Kippur all Ein Prat graduates and current students are invited to return to Ein Prat.

Undaunted by the extreme heat on Yom Kippur this year, an unprecedented 900 participants, graduates and friends registered. Half went to Ein Prat, half to the Goldstein Youth Village in Jerusalem for the experience of participatory prayers conducted by students, with mixed and separate seating, and shiurim.

Reflecting on the longer view, Micha asserts that a charismatic group has the power to effect change in Israel by becoming an exemplary model. In the 50s and 60s the charismatic Israeli was  a muscular kibbutznik wearing a kova tembel.  The charismatic Israeli emerging from from Ein Prat, Micha describes as passionately Jewish (but may not be Orthodox); caring about society (but may not be socialist/left); patriotic (but may not be right wing); individualistic (but not egoistic); and optimistic about Israel. Perhaps, this Israeli will become known to Jews outside of Israel, changing their expectations of what Israel is and can be.

About the Author
Suzanne Singer was, for years, an editor and writer for Moment magazine and Biblical Archaeology Review in Washington DC. Since aliyah in '98, her focus has moved to how young people build their Jewish lives. She is on the Board of Pardes Institute, and is the founder of Shabbat Connections, a hosting program for long term students in Jerusalem. She also works to make known the writings of her son Alex z"l who died in battle in the IDF and whose life continues to impact countless young Jews.