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Something New in Jerusalem: Neria Shapira and Mechon Hadar’s Israel Connections
Mechon Hadar deepens connection to Israel by welcoming Israeli fellows to our immersive programs and serving the 80+ alumni living in Israel
While many American Jews go to Israel every year to study in yeshivas, more and more Israelis are making the opposite journey, and venturing to New York to study at Mechon Hadar. Since Mechon Hadar launched its year-long and summer learning intensives, it has welcomed more than 50 Israelis into these programs.
Mechon Hadar has actively recruited Israelis to participate in its programs both to expose its American students to Israeli life, through deep relationships with fellow students, as well as to expose Israelis to the diversity of American Jewish religion. "It is exceedingly rare for Americans and Israelis to come together for a shared experience of joint learning and community-building," said Rabbi Elie Kaunfer.
Perhaps no one better exemplifies this spirit of American-Israeli learning and community-building better than Israeli Neria Shapira.
Shapira, 27, is a geologist who currently lives in Jaffa. She was raised Orthodox and had never experienced another type of Judaism before she came to Mechon Hadar in 2009. But she knew early on that she wanted a different path than the typical one girls she grew up with took. After high school, said Shapira, most girls study for a year or two in a yeshiva—or midrasha, the female equivalent—before doing their army service.
But after high school, Shapira felt, "There’s no midrasha for me." She knew of no center of study that combined a high level of learning with an "open mind and liberal thinking about Torah and about God."
She ended up enrolling at a midrasha on a kibbutz, but she still felt like she "didn’t get what she wanted from the Torah world."
So when a friend told her about the opportunity at Mechon Hadar, she bought her airline ticket. It would be the first time she had spent much time in the United States, and the first time she would be exposed to the way Judaism is lived in the U.S.
"It was so nice to see the big range of the relationships to the religion. It was the first time [I met] people from the non-Orthodox world," she said.
"It was very powerful for me."
For the first time, she said, "I understood that I was looking through very narrow eyes at my religious world."
Upon returning home, Shapira was determined to bring the openness and diversity, as well as the meaningful prayer experience, back with her. With others, she started a beit midrash in Jerusalem to foster the kind of study she experienced at Mechon Hadar. "It began something new in Jerusalem," she said.
She also now frequently attends an egalitarian minyan in Jerusalem, and is still using what she learned in her studies at Mechon Hadar. "I’m still using the tools," she said, five years after her studies. "I used them in getting my first degree at Hebrew University, and also in my learning outside the academic world."
Shapira hopes Mechon Hadar will launch a branch in Israel. "It’s good to be in New York, but it needs to also be here," she said.