Abiya Beit Midrash community center opens new perspectives for ultra-Orthodox young people who are curious about what goes on beyond their sector.
Musician Sinai Tor (C) plays at the Abiya Beit Midrash community center, Jerusalem, Dec. 21, 2017.
On a chilly December evening in Jerusalem, Yitzhak, a young ultra-Orthodox man, and a few of his friends stand outside the Abiya Beit Midrash, a community center and study hall, waiting for the musical event to begin. In the small hall, Sinai Tor tunes the instruments as he plays the beginning of a well-known Jewish song in a progressive jazz arrangement.
As the music starts, the hall slowly fills up. At first, the young men sit with their arms crossed but soon they start moving their heads to the sound of the music; some start clapping and by the end everyone sings at the top of their lungs. “I felt as if I was floating on a cloud,” Yitzhak, who asked that his real name not be used, told Al-Monitor after the performance.
The event at Abiya Beit Midrash on Dec. 21 marked the opening of a music education initiative that brings together young ultra-Orthodox people who want to learn more about music trends and instruments. The program is run by volunteer instructors and includes jazz jam sessions. The plan is that these musical evenings become a regular activity at the community center, in addition to music education, art classes and professional training.
Abiya Beit Midrash is a community center founded in 2014 that provides training, activities and support for young ultra-Orthodox men who prefer to leave the usual path of the yeshivot (rabbinical seminaries) to which the ultra-Orthodox direct their sons. The center enrolls young men ages 18-25, some with families and most of whom work. They have in common a thirst to get to know life beyond the yeshiva and the closed ultra-Orthodox community.
One of the leading activists at the center told Al-Monitor that the growing sector of new ultra-Orthodox, particularly those who have integrated into the job market, are ready for intellectual openness as they are more engaged in Israeli society. This, in turn, has created a greater desire for professional development and knowledge of culture, spiritualism and society.
Most of the performers at ultra-Orthodox events such as weddings, bar mitzvahs or special gatherings with rabbis are not ultra-Orthodox themselves. And so, for instance, a young ultra-Orthodox person who wishes to study music must take private lessons outside the community or learn by himself, which often ends in abandoning one’s dream.
Yisrael Stern, an ultra-Orthodox musician, was born into a family of the Lithuanian stream, a relatively closed community that insists its sons study in yeshivot. He told Al-Monitor that to his great fortune, his parents noticed his love for music. At the age of 14, they allowed him to study music with a private teacher, and he played the organ and the guitar until he got to the yeshiva for students of post-high school age. The heads of the yeshiva did not like it and he had to continue studying by himself.
“In the Hasidic ultra-Orthodox sector, people know how to sing and be happy and they receive me better there,” he said. “In the Lithuanian sector where I grew up, it’s much harder; Torah study is the greatest and almost singular value, and nothing must disrupt it — not even music.”
Today, Stern makes a living playing at events and giving private lessons, and he is one of the instructors at the ultra-Orthodox musical venture at Abiya Beit Midrash. “I want to give young people what I had a very hard time getting — the opportunity to learn music and to play an instrument in a respectable and comfortable place for a young ultra-Orthodox person.”
During the event, two young ultra-Orthodox men enter, rifles hanging from their shoulders. They are soldiers on leave, and for most at the event the servicemen are a novelty, as many ultra-Orthodox young people are exempt from serving in the Israeli army.
Yisrael Kushmirsky, who helped found the center and is its director, told Al-Monitor that it serves as a home for yeshiva outcasts — those who have a hard time withstanding the long days of study or who do not fit in the regular ultra-Orthodox settings. Some of them are ostracized by their families, especially if they enlisted in the army, and Abiya Beit Midrash offers a variety of support, such as providing a cultural community, helping the young men to find homes or to receive professional training and music lessons.
Kushmirsky said another group of young people who visit the center are “regular” ultra-Orthodox who seek a little more than their closed world of the Torah. The demand for culture is great, especially for music. None of the events are accessible to women and the music events only include lyrics that are considered appropriate and modest, most of which are from the holy books and prayers.
He characterizes the average young ultra-Orthodox man who comes to the center as a person with fully ultra-Orthodox values and mentality, but with a different cultural horizon, who seeks to open up to general knowledge and a wider culture. Some of the young men listen to music in secret, some of them try to learn to play by themselves and the lucky ones are able to pay for private lessons. The center provides them a setting that is appropriate and accessible to them.
Kushmirsky said that Abiya Beit Midrash receives virtually no institutional support — neither at a local nor national level. The Jerusalem municipality and government ministries do not support the center. Lacking support and funding, they have no capacity to establish a professional ultra-Orthodox school of music, so the initiative depends on volunteers. Regardless, dozens of young men have signed up to participate, some of them with musical experience while others are merely curious and are interested in music.
Jazz improvisation, the various ensembles and the jam sessions that create a rhythmic musical conversation can work well with this ultra-Orthodox musical format: amateurish, volunteer-based, a place to satisfy a dream, curiosity and desire, where in daily life practitioners find themselves harnessed to a scrupulous ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.
At the end of the evening, a song by Arik Einstein plays. Considered one of Israel’s greatest singers, he died four years ago. Einstein was not ultra-Orthodox and the tribute attests to a growing connection of ultra-Orthodox young people to the broader Israeli experience while they attempt to maintain an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.
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