Torah and sociology series: Ulpana Ofra, 2006 and 2021, changing Torah priorities

The times they are a ‘changing: from the task of settling the Land of Israel to the task of defining Torah individualism in post modern society.

Dr. Chaim C.. Cohen ,

Dr. Chaim C. Cohen
Dr. Chaim C. Cohen
Courtesy

The times they are changing with regard the sociological priorities of the dati leumi sector. While the basic core values of our sector, the Land of Israel, the People of Israel, and the Torah of Israel are ‘eternal’, their priorities and modes of expression are changing. In 2005-6, with our struggle to prevent the expulsion from Gush Katif , we gave priority to settling the Land of Israel. In 2021 we are compelled to give priority to defining and guarding a Torah based individualism amidst the maelstrom of post modern, anarchistic individualism.

I would like to use the stories of my daughter ( Ulpana Ofra 2006) and my granddaughter (Ulpana Ofra 2021) to illustrate this point.

Ulpana Ofra, 2006

Ulpana Ofra, February 2006 : my daughter, and at least another one hundred ulpana students, responded to the call, and marched two kilometers up the hill, to participate in the resistance to the expulsion of the settlers of Amona. My daughter was almost trampled underneath the horses of a baton wielding, violent policeman. The pictures we received were truly horrifying.

February 2006 was less than a half a year after the expulsion of 8000 Jewish settlers from Gush Katif. My whole family spent the previous one and a half years participating in many demonstrations to oppose the expulsion. During all this time all the dati leumi educational institutions freely, and without reserve, encouraged and sent their students to participate in the demonstrations. My daughters spent the month and half before the Katif expulsion in Gush Katif trying to give every last ounce of support and solidarity to the residents. We were all willing to devote seemingly endless energy to oppose the expulsion and save the Jewish settlements of Eretz Yisrael.

And during the six months from the expulsion from the Gush to the expulsion from Amona most of us had lingering ‘guilt feelings’ that we let the government expel us ‘too easily’. And the successor to Sharon, Ehud Olmert, wanted to demonstrate with the expulsion from Amona that he was ‘tough’ on the settlers in order to advance his disengagement plan from most of Judea and Samaria. The result was that Olmert’s police were violent and the resistance of our children at Amona was very determined. Thus our children at Ulpana Ofra ended up being on the ‘front lines ‘of this historic confrontation with the silent encouragement of the Ulpana staff.

Ulpana Ofra 2021

The Ulpana Ofra high school in 2021 has close to 800 students, with dormitory services twice a week. Its student body is very diversified, (and not at all elitist) as the vast majority of its students come from the Benyamin Regional Council. The student body is diversified with regard to both academic skills and religious observance. Its curriculum reflects this diversity in both the religious and secular subjects taught.

The Ulpana Ofra high school educational experience is highly experiential, putting an emphasis on involving students in a variety of socio–educational experiences outside the classroom. The ulpana puts an emphasis on experiential education for two reasons. One reason is to unite a very varied student body. Second as an educational philosophy – for Judaism to penetrate the souls of the students, the staff believes, it must be ‘experienced’ and not merely cognitively understood.

For all of the above reasons, for all of its over 35 years, the play put on by the graduating 12th grade students is a very significant educational experience. Having finished their matriculation exams, the students spend close to a whole month preparing the graduation play. The ulpana invests much money in hiring professionals to direct and produce the show (for women only).The students are involved in all aspects of the acting and production.

When my three daughters attended, most 12th grade graduation plays were a redoing of famous (Broadway) musicals. However this year, the 12th grade student body voted, in a ‘revolutionary’ decision, to present a play based on Rav Haim Navon’s book, ‘Chofshi Zeh’. The Rav Baharan ulpana ( a more ‘Torani’ oriented ulpana) also voted to base their graduation play on Rav Navon’s book.

Rav Navon’s book is a dystopian novel- presenting the future as a ‘nightmare’ and not as a utopia, (like the book of my childhood, ‘1984’). The purpose of the book’s plot is to emphasize the ‘nightmarish’ quality of major sociological elements of postmodern society. The major message of Navon’s dystopian novel is that the supposed radical, utilitarian individualism of postmodern society is really in essence a novel form of enslavement to the baser elements of one’s self, and to society’s all encompassing social structure.

This dystopian individualism takes two forms. The first is that all interpersonal relationships are short term, utilitarian and based on a contract that can easily be revoked. This doctrine of ‘relationship by utilitarian contract’ applies to friendships, work, religion, and most important, family, marriage, parenting, and community. The doctrine preaches that one does not have to be ‘enslaved’ by long term relationships or commitments. One is permanently ‘free’ to frequently rewrite one’s life.

The second form of dystopian individualism is that in order to add some sense of order and direction in a society where each person is constantly rewriting the script of his life, a computer chip is implanted in each person’s brain. Thus most of a person’s ‘supposedly individual decisions’ are in fact determined by the control of a centralized, governmental artificial intelligence.

The drama of the plot focuses on a judicial trial of a couple who are accused of openly rebelling against this social order. They do so by detaching themselves from the brain’s artificial intelligence chip, by attempting to live a life based on ongoing, obligating family and community commitments, and by collaborating with a small community that has previously succeeded in detaching themselves from the ruling social order. The ulpana students added dance and music to better convey the dark, threatening atmosphere of the dystopia.

The play was very, very well received. The ulpana had planned to have only five (ticket based) performances. But the feedback from these performances was so positive that another three performances were added, all sold out, including one in Jerusalem.

What do the differences between 2006 and 2021 Ulpana Ofra tell us about the social priorities of the younger generation of the dati leumi community?

I believe the girls of Ulpana Ofra are telling us that the dati leumi community must urgently develop a Torah based social culture that can compete with the threatening, postmodern social culture of our surrounding, secular Israeli society.

The girls of the ulpana are telling us that we must give priority to defining and teaching a Torah based understanding of self awareness, of self expression and of self actualization.

The girls of the ulpana are telling us that they need guidance and understanding so that that can get an academic education, engage in challenging careers, and artistic expression, but pursue these areas of self fulfillment in a way that that is true to Torah values and norms, and enhances, and does not detract, from their religious spirituality.

They want help in answering the critical question of how they can pursue a career and professional self fulfillment and at the same create a wonderful, rich Torah family life of parenting and couplehood. In 2021 these issues take priority over question of security and settling the Land of Israel (although my granddaughter was involved in strengthening the settlement of Eviyatar)

Conclusion

It is a historical given that the dati leumi community will be actively and creatively involved in all corners of Israel’s highly secular, postmodern society. However, the girls of Ulpana Ofra in 2021 are pleading that our sector must succeed in creating a Torah based social culture that will enable them to engage in this secular society, but do so in a way that the self fulfillment of careers and familyhood will be the type of self fulfillment that will enrich their personal and communal religious spirituality.

I strongly believe that the ulpana girls are correct. Creating a solid, broad based Torah social culture IS the foremost divine commandment of our particular historical movement.



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