First of its kind: Mixed religious and secular seminary for girls opens
“There is great power in learning with those who are different from us,” head of new Ohr Torah Stone seminary says.
Israel National News | September 11, 2023
At a time when Israeli society is severely divided and polarized, a new institution has been established where, for the first time ever, religious and secular high school graduates will study side by side.
Launched by the Ohr Torah Stone (OTS) network of Institutions, “HaMidrasha HaYisraelit,” The Israeli Seminary, officially opened its doors to the first class of students and held a festive opening event at the seminary’s campus in the northern Israeli town of Pardes-Hanna, attended by OTS administration, the seminary’s staff and students, Pardes Hanna Mayor Hagar Perry, IDF officers, and others.
Utilizing OTS’s years of experience in seminaries and bridge-building among its 32 institutions and programs, HaMidrasha HaYisraelit brings together young women from diverse backgrounds for a year of joint learning following the completion of high school.
Throughout the year, the seminary’s beit midrash (study hall) will host lectures and paired study focusing on Jewish and Israeli thought, Zionism, spirituality, philosophy, and Jewish and Israeli identity. Following the year of study, the seminary staff will continue to accompany graduates during the course of their pursuant military or national service.
According to the seminary’s mission statement, the teaching is done through an equal and respectful discourse where every opinion is heard and every insight is important, so that everyone can bring her own world to the table. The hope and vision of the program is to create a “Jewish-Israeli language based on our roots and the ideals and values we all share.” The new seminary’s activities are in line with those of Ohr Torah Stone’s Yachad Program, which has been leading community-building processes for the past 20 years, working with regional councils to encourage dialogue and bridge-building between all sectors of Israeli society.
Jointly leading the institution in this path of integration, partnership and respect are Seminary director Avital Wilner-Shalev, a religious woman, and her deputy, Esther Meir-Horowitz, who defines herself as secular. Wilner-Shalev is a former Bible educator and teacher, who has been involved in facilitating teacher communities and developing pedagogical content and teaching in Torah programs for religious women. Meir-Horowitz is also a Bible educator and teacher, who in recent years has been engaged in teaching literature, Jewish thought, identity, and society in Israel.
“My aim is to make sure that each and every student feels at home amongst the treasures of the Jewish bookshelf,” explains Wilner-Shalev. “There is great power in learning with those who are different from us – despite, or perhaps because of, the gaps that allow us to learn from one another’s worlds. Our goal is to be a home of partnership within an environment of dialogue, finding our way to mutual understandings, inclusion and respect for the background and lifestyle of each individual.”
“Our vision is to create an opportunity to deepen the various identities within the seminary, to amplify voices and to develop a powerful and unique female voice,” adds Meir-Horowitz. “A place in which students are engaged, by choice, in all aspects of the spiritual world. The combination of religious and secular young women, precisely in these times, and their joint studies in the beit midrash, which is based on the discourse of debate, will enable an important encounter between identities, which is the key to social rehabilitation.”
“In the face of the widening rifts in Israeli society, the existence of a seminary that will serve as a home for religious, traditional and secular young women is the kind of step that can serve as a bridge and increase unity,” notes Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone. “As a network whose main focus is the vision of lighting the way in Jewish education, outreach and leadership, we believe that the Torah and the beit midrash have the power to be the glue that connects all parts of Israeli society, to ensure the continuity of our common life here together.”