Life is a Highway: Machon Maayan

hero image
22 May 2008

A Unique Seminary Expresses the Value of the Holistic Year in the Israel Journey

Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I had some time to contemplate my existence in this wonderful though sometimes frustrating land. It turned out to be a stalled bus occupying one of the two lanes in a winding, narrow stretch towards the Bet Shemesh exit (my destination) that caused havoc during the homebound rush hour for thousands of commuters. For me, I was disappointed that I would be missing the weekly class I teach at Machon Maayan, a new Seminary for North American post High School young women. And that feeling snowballed to all the frustrations we have on the road.

Why were some of the drivers speeding by on the shoulder of the road only to stop the traffic a few hundred feet away as they merged once again? Don’t we also want to arrive at our destinations? And why was I not informed of this delay until I was deep in the midst of it with no alternative but to sit, inching my way forward, and make sure not to fall asleep as the monotonous shifting between brake and accelerator took control? Road frustration gravitated to general existential soul-searching: what was my mission? Was I fulfilling my potential? Is it worth the sacrifice?

What concerned me most at that moment, though, was not my existential angst but the fact that my students would miss one of their last classes of the year. It was to be an analysis of the final chapters of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, which would complete several weeks of discussion, examination and elucidation of the Davidic poetry in our liturgy. I called ahead and told the secretary to inform the girls that I was stuck on the road and to start working on psalm 99 from a literary, structural, and poetic perspective.

I had many doubts about the fruition of that task as I was unsure that the message would be transmitted or that the women would be inclined to start working instead of enjoying a respite and just hanging out.

I was in for a surprise.

When I began teaching at Machon Maayan I immediately knew that this was a unique student body; challenging, but sometimes lined with instant gratification for an educator. After one of the first classes of the course called, “The Poetry of Prayer,” in which I discussed the impetus for pouring out one’s emotions to God, a young woman came over to me and thanked me, saying ‘it was so inspiring, I cried’. No, not every day would be a home run, but the mere experience of hearing feedback – and not just acknowledgment but genuine appreciation for the material taught and the inspiration imparted – left me with goose bumps.



Machon Maayan was the brainstorm of Rabbi Ira Kosowsky (Rav K) who has worked for many years in the Education Department of the Jewish Agency. He, together with educational leaders in the Orthodox Union, specifically in NCSY and the OU Israel Center, realized that there was a necessity to create a new program for those who did not necessarily follow the mainstream high school path. What if they graduated from a Yeshiva high school but in addition to serious learning were looking for more internship and leadership training? What if they went to a public high school? What if they had no background in Jewish language, thought or texts but had a passion for religion and wanted to learn more? What if they were excited about coming to Israel and learning Torah but did not want to sacrifice touring the land, meeting the people, and engaging in opportunities our homeland affords us? Rav K together with the OU answered these needs with two words—Machon Maayan.

Under the auspices of the OU, Rav K found partners in the Jewish Agency and Touro College who subsidized and supported the program from day one. With this foundation he pioneered a new curriculum with a fresh attitude towards the typical year-in-Israel experience: divide the week up into intense text-oriented classes, leadership training seminars, internships in serious year-long community chesed projects and learning about Eretz Yisrael in a meaningful and inspiring way. Could one create such a program that synthesizes all these motifs together without diluting each individual message?

Could I spend a year teaching Tehillim as a poetic expression of our connecting to God to young women who had little background in Hebrew and even less in Psalms? Would the girls possess the maturity to appreciate the words of David as a blueprint for a spiritual odyssey taking place on a personal, national and even universal level?

All these questions danced in my mind as I was braking and releasing, slowing and starting on the famous Latrun highway which connected Jerusalem with the rest of the country in the early days of our nation.

The answers to these queries hit me startlingly as I finally pulled up 45 minutes late, expecting an empty classroom and another half an hour to kill. The eight women were not only there but had open Bibles in front of them. Hannah was at the board jotting down the thoughts which Shoshana, Natasha, Emily, Laya, Aliza, and Rachel, were expressing. First they divided the psalm into its three sections, as I taught them, then they searched for repeating words or themes, and attempted to find the thread which binds the different sections together into a melodious song of praise to God.

Inwardly I was shouting with joy, filled with pride, and smiling ear to ear; outwardly I quietly sat down and listened as Hannah continued the discussion and the psalm came to life. Shoshana read a commentary, but Natasha didn’t see the logic. A debate ensued and they each took a side, comfortable in their understanding of the two ways to read the line and their individual inclinations to one reading or the other. Laya raised a novel approach, something she would never have done months before; she was proud of herself, and so were her friends. Together they used the tools we explored in class to analyze the psalm and apply it to our everyday lives. They truly inspired me.

I began to see the wisdom of Rav K and what he has successfully created in this institution. Your year in Israel must be holistic. If you focus intently on learning but forget about chesed, what are you? If you tour the land twenty-four seven but miss out on the building block of our hallowed religion – the Torah – you end up wanting. And if you study, learn and see, but don’t internalize that you are not simply young students but rather future leaders, then you miss out on a brilliant opportunity the year offers.

Machon Maayan students emerge with the whole picture: a deep emotional and experiential connection to our homeland, a mature and realistic identification with who they are and what they can become as future leaders in their communities. They leave having experienced an intense love affair with the ancient yet timeless words of God, Moses, and David, and of countless Biblical and Rabbinic personalities throughout the ages.

Sure, not every student in the program feels the same resounding success; and, of course, many seminaries that focus on different areas are healthy and viable alternatives. But for me, having taught over half the student population over the year, I have been privileged to watch a magnificent transformation right before my very eyes. Not a superficial, external ‘flipping out’, but a deep-seated, intellectual and spiritual journey in progress. Is it over as the year comes to a close? Certainly not. In fact all the young women understand that it has just begun to get interesting!

My day concludes and the frustrations of traffic jams and existential angst are but a faded memory. I begin my quiet, congestion-free climb up the Judean hills back to Efrat and revel in the joy and honor of teaching Torah in Eretz Yisrael to young women who “got it”! They understood the magnitude of their experience in Machon Maayan and they shared it with me by showing me, as king David showed us all, how life’s journey can be inspired by a word, a gesture, or an emotional spark, which buds, blooms and flowers into a magnificent spiritual encounter in the holiest land in the world.

Rabbi Avi Baumol is Director of Communications of OU Israel.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.