Shalem College
November 20, 2019

Reframing Israel’s Story: Shalem Grads Help Found a Beit Midrash for Mizrahi Culture

Yeshiva Mizrahit was conceived as a space in which Mizrahi scholarship, traditions, and culture could be encountered in a vibrant and unmediated way.

In his 2014 article for Mosaic magazine, “Mizrahi Nation,” the author Matti Friedman begins by explaining that “the story of Israel, as most people know it,” is one of a blond pioneer from Europe, tilling the soil of the kibbutzim by day, listening to Haydn in one of the new state’s concert halls by night. “Israel might have been located, for historical reasons, in the Middle East,” writes Friedman of the conventional narrative, “but the new country was an outpost of Europe,” whose star players were almost invariably Ashkenazim.

Yet, he then points out rather drily, “it should be clear to anyone on even passing terms with the actual country of Israel that all of this is absurd…. Half of Israel’s Jews do not hail from Europe and are descendants of people who had little to do with Herzl, socialism, the kibbutz, or the Holocaust. These people,” he concludes, referring to those Jews who made aliyah from Arab countries, and who in Hebrew are known as Mizrahim [“Easterners”] are not a mere footnote to the narrative of the Jewish state as we know it. They require, he insists, “a reframing of the story”—which is exactly what the Shalem graduates who helped found Yeshiva Mizrahit set out to do.

“I started noticing, around my sophomore year of Shalem, that I had a hard time turning in my final papers on time,” recalls Avia Sandak ’19, who, together with Nadav Cohen ’19 and several students from other institutions, founded Yeshiva Mizrahit, or the “Eastern Yeshiva.” The ambitious initiative combines textual study, music, and social gatherings to bring awareness of Mizrahi Torah and culture into mainstream Israeli life. “When I spoke with Nadav, we began to toss around the idea—jokingly—that maybe my difficulty arose from ‘the Western space’ in which we Israelis live, which doesn’t align with the concept of ‘Eastern time.’” Nadav picks up the thread: “From our casual conversations about the various differences between Western and Eastern worldviews grew an awareness that the Eastern part was usually missing from public consciousness, and from our own intellectual and personal lives as well. We wanted to create a space in which Mizrahi scholarship, traditions, and culture could be encountered in a vibrant and unmediated way. Only then,” he concludes, “can they be appreciated for the contributions they made to both Jewish and Israeli history.”

The initiative was founded with the assistance of Shalem’s Impact Office, a four-year, comprehensive program funded by The Paul E. Singer Foundation. The Office combines study, field tours, volunteerism, and real-world work experience to grant students the tools they need to influence Israeli society from within a range of fields. Now in its fifth year, the Office recently launched an Accelerator to answer a growing need: the desire, on the part of both students and graduates, to launch socially minded businesses or nonprofits of their own. With more than twenty applications for five slots, the first cohort in the Accelerator launched projects to address political, social, and cultural challenges facing the country. In addition to regular mentoring sessions, the selected projects received modest seed funding and assistance in producing a video trailer for promotional purposes—although it would seem, from the public’s enthusiastic response, that the Yeshiva needs no help taking off.

Currently the Yeshiva meets twice a month, with additional meetings organized around holidays. The Purim gathering, for example, emphasized the culture of Persian Jewry, while Mimouna, a traditional North African Jewish celebration marking the return to eating bread after Passover, was an opportunity to explore Moroccan Jewish history and what Moroccan rituals reveal about the holiday.

“Yeshiva Mizrahit is very different from an Ashkenazi yeshiva. The focus is not solely on textual study, but rather on creating a rich ‘Mizrahi’ experience, of which textual study is one part,” says Avia. “Our participants sit on the floor with pillows. There are classic texts and source sheets, and we’ll learn, for example, the Ben Ish Hai and Rabbi Yosef Mashash. But we also play traditional Mizrahi instruments and sing piyyutim. The atmosphere, the rituals, the music, the food—in the Mizrahi world, these elements aren’t separated out from learning, so we don’t separate them. We embrace them.”

Over the course of just over a year, the Yeshiva has reached hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds in Jerusalem—a success that Nadav attributes both to a hunger among Mizrahim for knowledge of their roots, as well as a growing interest on the part of Ashkenazi Israel for what Mizrahi culture has to offer them. Indeed, in a country among whose most popular singers is a young, religious Mizrahi man named Ishai Ribo who sings exclusively about faith and spirituality, could “Mizrahi Judaism” finally be having its moment?

“Not so fast,” smiles Avia. “It’s true, there is more of an awareness today than before; the second and third generations of Jewish olim [immigrants] from Eastern countries are making themselves heard, whether through films that document their parents or grandparents’ experience or in music festivals. But there is still an imbalance, one that it will take time to correct. It’s the grassroots work done by the likes of Yeshiva Mizrahit and organizations like Elul from the Mizrach that will lay the foundation for the shift in Israel’s narrative. And thanks to the support we received and continue to receive from Shalem, as well as from programs such as ‘Kulana’ of Yeruham and Hadar, we can play a key role in the process,” she concludes.

Nadav agrees, and sounds a welcome note of optimism. “The most gratifying part of the work we’re doing at the Yeshiva has been seeing the various spin-offs we’ve inspired, big and small,” he explains. For instance, this year a group of Shalem students, together with Avia, decided to make the theme of the college’s annual student conference ‘Mizrahi culture.’” The conference, which brought together leading Mizrahi scholars, artists, and activists from across the religious and political spectrum, attracted a substantial crowd from outside Shalem, as well. The format works,” concludes Nadav, “In the months and even years ahead, we’re going to leverage it in order to help ‘find’ the lost culture of Mizrahi Jews—and in order to make Israel a better place in the bargain.”