ck: We’ve been running some banner ads for this SIACH program that you founded and currently run in Jerusalem. I checked it out and found it actually kind of interesting. According to your Web site, Siach is a pluralistic Jewish program in Israel for post High School young adults. You accept Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and unaffiliated participants, and teach them together all under the same roof. That’s a lot of very different and opposing worldviews.
Rabbi David Harbater (RDH): While the issues you raised are indeed “thorny”, there are many mature, inquisitive and independent minded high school graduates who welcome the opportunity to study and discuss different Jewish perspectives and worldviews. Indeed, these students see the encounter with such worldviews as essential to formulating their own. They don’t want to be told what to think and what to do but rather seek to be part of a framework that respects their freedom and individuality and that provides them with the tools to make their own decisions about their future as young Jewish adults. There is a big difference between discussion and debate and “conflict”. On SIACH, students debate many burning issues but they learn to respect their peers and very often agree to disagree, and they engage in heated discussions and debate one moment and then five minutes later hang out and have a great time together. It has been truly amazing to see how students from such different backgrounds and religious observances bonded as a group and are now the best of friends. I have told them that if only the wider Jewish community would see what goes on at SIACH there would be a lot more unity and a lot less divisiveness and conflict.
ck: You are an Orthodox Rabbi. Siach is specifically aimed at participants from non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. I personally see Jewlicious as a Kiruv organization. I’m trying to get everyone to
adopt a southern Moroccan hashkafa… Are you a Kiruv organization too? What is your goal and hopes for your students by the end of the year?
RDH: Although I am an Orthodox rabbi I did not create SIACH in order to impose my values and worldview on my students. SIACH is not designed to teach Orthodox Judaism to non-Orthodox Jews but rather to help students from all backgrounds to make informed, thoughtful and meaningful decisions about their values, beliefs and practices. I recognize that there are many ways to be a committed Jew. Just as there are committed Orthodox Jews, there are committed Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews. If “kiruv” means using the framework to try to convince students of my “truth” or of molding them in my image rather than helping them mold themselves in their own, then SIACH is not a kiruv program at all. If however “kiruv” means helping students develop a deep personal connection to Torah and Judaism and a personal passion and commitment to Israel then can SIACH be categorized as a kiruv program. If our students become more committed to Orthodox halakhic practice, or more involved in their Conservative or Reform communities, or more active on college campus in Hillel, in Israel advocacy or in Tikkun Olam projects, or any one of a number of expressions of Jewish commitment, then we have succeeded. I take pride in the fact that that is exactly what is happening among our alumni.
ck: How did Siach start? How long has the program been around?
RDH: I thought of creating SIACH several years ago when I realized that there was a fundamental void in the post high school Israel programs. While there are many yeshivas and seminaries that are devoted to Jewish learning, virtually all of them approach the text from an Orthodox perspective and see learning as a vehicle to reinforce an Orthodox halakhic lifestyle. While I certainly think it is important that students learn Jewish texts through the prism of ancient and medieval tradition, there is a lot more that has been said and written about classical texts in modern times that can lend meaning and depth to our understanding of the text and its meaning in this day and age. My goal was to create a program that didn’t place ideological boundaries on what can be studied or discussed, but that encourages students to grapple with a broad spectrum of approaches, and that has confidence in their ability to make their own informed and meaningful decisions based on the knowledge and the experiences that we provide on the program. While I am fully aware that many high school graduates may not be quite ready for this kind of openness and challenging envrionment, SIACH is meant to serve the considerable population that is. SIACH was launched successfully last year.
ck: In a paragraph, tell me about a success story resulting from your program?
RDH: I am very proud to say that in our first we had not just one success story but many. Of course this depends on how one defines “success”. I do not define success based on the number of mitzvot my students perform or the number of pages of gemara they learn but by the depth of the commitment and love that they develop for Judaism, for the Jewish people and for Israel and by the extent to which the program contributes to their self-confidence and happiness in who they are and in where they are headed as human beings and as Jews. In this sense, SIACH has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. The following are a few of the testimonials of our alumni: Rachel Lichtman, Toronto; “SIACH helped me find beauty in Judaism. It changed my life and I developed so much as a person”, Raviva Hanser, Newton, MA: “SIACH instilled in me a richer appreciation for Judaism and Israel and I have a deeper understanding of who I am and what is meaningful to me”, Sarah Sleeter, Los Gatos, CA: “SIACH helped me connect to Israel and Judaism in ways I never could have imagined. I cannot think of a more unique, fun and life changing program”, Jonathan Bitton, Plantation, FL: “Not only did SIACH change my perspective on Judaism but it changed my perspective on life. It was the most amazing year of my life and I will never forget it.”
ck: What is a typical Siach student going to experience during their stay in Israel, and what are they going to go home with at the end of the year?
RDH: One of the things that distinguishes SIACH from other programs is the way that we’ve integrated a wide variety of activities into fabric of each and every week. Every week the program features interactive study of Jewish texts on topics of relevance to high school graduates, intensive Hebrew language and the history of Zionism and contemporary Israel, a full day tiyul, community service, professional internships, group-building activities and fun, and guest speakers. In addition, we have monthly Shabbatonim, ongoing interactions with Israeli peers, we participate in a range of Israeli cultural events, and we go on week-long trips, Gadna and building projects, and seminars. Graphic illustrations of our weekly and annual schedule can be found on our www.siach.org website. The students leave with a deep connection to Jewish learning and Jewish living, a passion for Israel, life-long friends from across the English speaking world, and the ability to articulate their values, beliefs and commitments and to live authentic Jewish lives.
ck: Why should a student go to your program as opposed to Young Judea, the Hebrew University, or one of the other myriad programs out there?
RDH: SIACH caters to students who are inquisitive and independent-minded, who have questions and want to be challenged, and who are eager to learn and engage in dynamic discussion around Judaism and Israel. Since we are not affiliated with a political or religious movement, SIACH is ideally suited for students who want the freedom to figure things out for themselves without being pushed to â€œfitâ€ into a predetermined â€œmoldâ€. In addition to the kinds of students for whom SIACH was intended, the program is unique in the way that we integrate a wide variety of activities every week and throughout the year. In this way the program has a flow and continuity unlike some other programs that divide the year into distinct segments, and our students can spend the entire year in Jerusalem without having to pack their bags and move from place to place. Another unique feature of SIACH is that we encourage our students to play an important role in planning and implementing many apsects of the program. How many programs give the students a 3 day trip and a budget and tell them to plan and run it from beginning to end on their own? In general, SIACH is a uniquely student-centered program in which each student’s voice is heard, each individual’s talents and interests expressed, and in which each student is given the essential tools and experiences to develop and strengthen their personal connection to Judaism and Israel and the ability to begin their journey into adult Jewish life with confidence and pride.
For more information on SIACH, visit their Web site at www.siach.org