In 2001, Kevin Shurack, a student at the University of Albany, had a job contract to teach English in South Korea. But while on a Birthright trip to Israel, he had a change of heart and decided to spend time in Jerusalem studying Torah. “I thought I’d stay for six months,” says Kevin, who enrolled in Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies. Six months turned into two years, during which Kevin forged a Jewish identity through Mayanot’s program that, as he says, has, “changed my life completely.”
Not all of Mayanot’s students stay two years, and not all are transformed by the experience. For many, it is a semester or two that opens them up to Jewish sources and a Jewish perspective that serve as a reference point for them when they leave. And, says Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner, executive director of Mayanot, that’s good. “Our success is in literate Jews. If Jews are literate, they are comfortable with their Jewish identity.”
Founded back in 1998 as a Chabad House in the Old City of Jerusalem for American students who were visiting, Mayanot has since grown into a full fledged academic institution that serves an average of 70 students per semester. “I recognized the there was a real need for a serious Jewish studies program that combines the best of both worlds – the inner and revealed – dimensions of Torah and its interface with the modern world,” says Gestetner.
Towards that end, Mayanot offers two tracks—a Jewish Studies Program—an introduction to Judaism and Jewish literacy for students with no background, and a Beit Midrash program with a serious textual focus for advanced students. An outstanding Ulpan program ensures Mayanot students gain strong Hebrew skills—an important tool that facilitates their own, independent study after they leave. Yonasan Knopp of South Africa, came to Mayanot specifically for that purpose. An accountant, Yonasan wanted accessibility to Jewish texts. “I wanted to know how to read Hebrew, and how to open all these books,” he says pointing to the bookshelves filled with Talmudic and Chasidic texts. “My goal is to be able to open all books of Torah and to teach to others as well.”
Most of the students are on full scholarship programs, explains Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, Director of Mayanot. “Many are either taking a break from college, or have completed college and do not have the wherewithal to fund their yeshiva education.” At the same time, applicants find it’s hard to get into Mayanot. “We are very selective in our admissions process,” explains Rabbi Shemtov, pointing out that students are accepted based on certain criteria—primarily a proven maturity and seriousness in their desire to study.
Mayanot provides dorming facilities, but prefers that students rent their own places. “We don’t want students to lose their own identity as they become involved in Judaism,” says Rabbi Gestetner. It’s important, he says, that students retain their own identity if they are to successfully integrate what they gain at Mayanot.
It’s a balance that Rabbi Gestetner and Rabbi Shemtov, along with the highly regarded faculty at Mayanot are sensitive and careful to achieve. Arie Paller, 25, from Los Angeles, describes Mayanot as a Yehsiva that is at once serious, intense in terms of its educational program and standards, “yet laid back” in all other respects. “It’s an atmosphere that is really conducive to my Jewish growth,” he says.
In a separate program, Mayanot is also one of the largest Birthright Israel providers bringing some 1500 American college students annually, to Israel. Birthright students spend Shabbos with Mayanot, and participate in a number of the yeshiva’s classes. Often, students return after college and spend some time studying at Mayanot.
Since its beginnings, even during the worst days of the intifida, says Rabbi Gestetner, Mayanot has seen consistent growth. Indeed, Rabbi Gestetner opened a Mayanot Chabad House in Nachlaot, a trendy Jerusalem neighborhood with a large student and young adults demographic—among them Mayanot alumni—many of whom end up making aliyah.
On the drawing board are plans for a parallel women’s program. While many yeshivas in Jerusalem offer a token class in Chasidism or mysticism, there is none that provides a combined program of Talmudic, legal and Chasidic studies.
Though that wasn’t what made Yonasan choose Mayanot, the curriculum may have something to do with it. As he explains it, in observing friends who have gone to other yeshivas, he found that “a lot of yeshivas teach academics and Torah, but those coming from Mayanot simply become better people.”