SAFED, Israel – Every Friday, Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva students across the globe head out of their study halls and take to the streets for pre-Sabbath interactions with locals: On the lookout for Jewish passersby, tourists and shopkeepers, they help men don the prayer boxes known as tefillin, hand out Sabbath candles to women, and answer questions about Judaism to anyone who asks.
It’s about the same for students at Yeshiva Temimei Darech, with one crucial difference. In keeping with their mystical and artistic surroundings – Safed, one of Judaism’s four holy cities, is known throughout the world as the seat of the esoteric teachings known as the Kabbalah and a lively artists’ colony – the students’ Friday rounds take on an unusually creative tone.
Along with the tefillin and candles come open-air musical performances featuring the yeshiva’s own jazz band. The yeshiva’s administration takes a similar approach to their weekday schedules, building time amidst hours of study of Jewish law and Chasidic thought to allow students to develop their musical and artistic talents. In addition to musicians, the student body – many of whose members are college graduates with little in the way of formal Jewish educational experiences as children – includes an accomplished painter, a graphic artist, and a martial arts practitioner who also plays African drums and guitar.
“We created a yeshiva that integrates the mystical depths with students’ individual talents, the merging of body and soul,” says director Rabbi Shalom Pasternak, 35, a jazz pianist and Vassar College graduate who went on to study at yeshivas in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Israel.
Pasternak is joined in the Friday afternoon band by student vocalist Ari Lesser, drummer and faculty member Rabbi Eliyahu Naiditch, various locals on guitar, harmonica, bass or saxophone, and other students rotating on other instruments. They play a mix of jazz and rock to the tune of original Torah-themed lyrics written by Lesser to an audience often packed with tourists on one of Safed’s well-traveled squares.
While the band plays, the rest of the students work the crowd with tefillin-wrapping sessions, Torah portion discussions and offering the opportunity to sponsor a letter in a Torah scroll the yeshiva is writing.
One particularly appreciative audience member, Safed resident Avraham Zimberg, mused aloud while watching the group warm up last Friday afternoon: “This is a product of a [dedication] to not only learn Talmud, but to use other talents in the service of G‑d.”
Pasternak and yeshiva dean Rabbi Ariel Gorenstein, also 35, created the institution on a small budget September 2009. They made the final decision to go forward with what would be the only English-speaking Chabad yeshiva in northern Israel on one of the longest fast days of the Jewish calendar, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av.
“The greatest light is brought out of darkness,” Pasternak quips, injecting mystical meaning into the unplanned coincidence. (The fast day commemorates the destruction of the first and second Holy Temples in Jerusalem, while tradition views the teaching of Torah as bringing light into the world.)
The actual opening landed – also unplanned – on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Elul, the anniversary of the birth of both the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in 1745, and Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidic thought, in 1698.
The yeshiva began with one student. Enrollment now hovers around 15 and is steadily growing.
Pasternak stresses that the yeshiva’s artistic bent comes without taking away from its more traditional and scholarly learning program that runs from morning to night and is geared largely to newcomers to Torah observance. Pasternak specializes in teaching Chasidic thought, while Gornstein is the institution’s Jewish law instructor, having studied at Israel’s esteemed Heichal Shlomo program at Kollel Ohr Yakov in the central city of Rechovot. Administrator Rabbi Eliezer Galatzan and a cook round out the staff, while adjunct support comes from Safed’s many religious experts, including some of the first rabbis sent to Israel by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
While encouraging its students’ maintenance of their artistic gifts and talents, the institution also shows its charges the beauty of religious life. Lesser, who signed on following an extended stay in the Holy Land after a Birthright Israel trip, says that after spending three months studying Judaism, he’s decided to focus solely on singing Torah-based songs.
(Chabad.org) “Where else could I be and do all of this,” remarks Lesser.
Adding to the ballast of the institution is its noteworthy address in the Old City of Safed. The yeshiva’s study hall, sanctuary and an adult learning program it shares the space with are all housed in the Tzemach Tzedek Synagogue, a historic institution established by followers of the Third Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, in the 1800s.
“We couldn’t have better tenants occupying the site,” comments Rabbi Chaim Kaplan, who directs Chabad-Lubavitch activities in Safed. “They express the ideal of what the Rebbe wanted from us.”