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A radical thought: study the Talmud – without the religion

Young Australian Jews are embracing programs that offer courses in traditional Jewish thought in a secular context.
Michael Visontay
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Open book with seven branch candelabra and olive branch on pages

Illustration: TJI

Published: 24 June 2024

Last updated: 25 June 2024

Young Jews are looking for secular contexts through which to embrace their cultural heritage. For some the yearning has been filled through music, or language, others have found a connection through “humanist” Shabbat services.

Now a growing cohort is exploring another path through the study of Jewish texts – without the religion.

There is a growing phenomenon of Jewish cultural centres are offering programs on traditional Jewish thought and literature detached from the synagogue context.

Topics such as Talmud and Kabbalah and interpretations of the Bible are offerred in new formats such as feminist frameworks or with music. The formats are broad and flexible, in a regular weekly context or through immersive weekend retreats.

Importantly, there is no expectation of observance or faith accompanying knowledge.

Beit Midrash Oz, a non-denominational learning centre in Melbourne, offers weekly classes on Midrash, Talmud, and Zohar (Kabbalah), and also holds a weekly informal parashah group, a monthly women's learning circle, and public talks and events combining music with textual learning. 

Its weekly programs have 5-15 participants, with special events that combine music with textual learning drawing up to 100 participants, says Raphael Dascalu, who co-ordinates the program. 

“There certainly seems to be a growing appetite for Jewish learning,” says Dascalu. “My sense is that many Jews are seeking ways to engage deeply and honestly with their cultural heritage, and Jewish thought and literature are both the richest context for such engagement, and the least provided in most mainstream Jewish settings.” 

For those who don't want to make an ongoing committment immersive retreats and one-off events have strong appeal.

Many Jews are seeking ways to engage with their cultural heritage. Jewish thought and literature are the richest context for such engagement.

Raphael Dascalu, Beit Midrash Oz

In recent years secular Zionist youth group Habonim and humanistic congregration Kolenu have combined to draw crowds to their Shavuot Tikkun Leil (learning night). This year they had 300 to 400 participants, ranging in age from 13 to their sixties but heavily weighted towards late teens and early twenties..

“The secular Jewish community needed and wanted a space to engage in Jewish learning in a way that spoke and related to the wider community,” says Amelia Page, the chair of Habonim Melbourne. “We are proud to be able to offer diverse and broad sessions that bring in all people.”

She puts the popularity of the annual event down to providing “a space that allows for many different Jews of all ages to come together, learn, and reflect on our world through a secular Jewish lens.

“People are yearning for multiple avenues of Jewish learning, particularly in a secular way. And our Tikkun Leil meets those desires.”

Page says the emphasis is on interactivity. “We started with getting into small groups to learn Jewish text and getting to know each other this year. We just felt this year especially it was important that people felt like they had a voice and didn’t come just to listen”.

Participants in the Moishe House Sydney Shavuot retreat, May 2024 (courtesy)
Participants in the Moishe House Sydney Shavuot retreat, May 2024 (courtesy)

International youth outreach organisation Moishe House held a Sydney Shavout retreat in May, which drew 32 participants, aged 20 to 31. It held a similar event in Melbourne in December. There had been a ten-year gap since the last ones, according to co-ordinator Naama Zohar.

The Moishe House Jewish Learning Retreats aim “to deepen one’s connection to Judaism,” Zohar says. “The education team invites participants to craft Jewish learning that has application to modern life, personal and communal relevance, and a call for future action.

She says demand for immersive retreats is growing. “Staff-led retreats provide an opportunity for Jewish young adults from different locations to connect to each other, get inspired, gain knowledge and replicate a specific program at home.”

Their philosophy is “learning by doing” under an umbrella of complete acceptance. “Everyone is welcomed and respected no matter their level observance,” she says. “The hosting community where the retreat takes place will also host a pre-retreat gathering the day before to give participants an opportunity to get acquainted with each other before diving into educational content.

About the author

Michael Visontay

Michael Visontay is the Commissioning Editor of TJI. He has worked as a journalist and editor for more than 30 years. Michael is the author of several books, including Who Gave You Permission?, co-authored with child sexual abuse advocate Manny Waks, and Welcome to Wanderland: Western Sydney Wanderers and the Pride of the West.


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