Under the auspices of Machon Shlomo Institute for Torah Studies, a yeshiva in Jerusalem, and its U.S. affiliate, Torah Institute of America, rabbis converged upon an inn outside of Yosemite in June. They taught ancient texts to a new generation of potential scholars, not far from the majestic peaks of El Capitan and Half Dome.
"There is a profound thirst among the rising generation of American Jews to get some clarity," said Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman, spiritual leader of Congregation Emek Beracha in Palo Alto, who was on the faculty. "They want to know what the sources say — what religion is supposed to be about."
For the past 20 years, the program took place in Moodus, Conn., with separate sessions for men and women. But this was the first time such a program took place on the West Coast.
And the natural beauty of the nearby national park provided the perfect setting to combine rigorous mental activity with the highly physical. While text study and prayer were the focus, the group also had the opportunity to mountain bike, explore Half Dome and climb to see a waterfall or two.
"It was not a coincidence that they do it at a place where you feel such godliness," said David Kasher, one of two participants from the Bay Area.
Kasher, a 23-year-old sign-language interpreter from Oakland, attended the program because he was deliberating which Israeli yeshiva to attend in the fall. He thought the program at Yosemite would give him a good sense of the learning style at Machon Shlomo. He liked what he saw and will study there in September.
Kasher said he was initially a bit hesitant, thinking that the rabbis would expect the students to believe a certain way. But that was not the case, he said, adding that many of the students were exploring a more observant lifestyle.
"I was so thoroughly impressed by the level of learning, I was really taken with it," he said.
Kasher discussed the philosophy of the head rabbi, Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld, head of Machon Shlomo in Jerusalem. Gershenfeld, he said, believes "the way to attract people to Judaism is to show them the philosophical depth of it. There's a level of intellectual depth behind all of these simple commandments."
Being fully observant becomes much more logical once one understands the laws behind each ritual, Kasher added.
Rabbi Mordechai Kreitenberg, director of the program, said most participants heard about it through word of mouth. Coming from a variety of backgrounds, they were people in their 20s and early 30s who "just knew there was something in Judaism that they have to take a look at, before they go on with their lives."
That seemed to perfectly describe another participant, Michael Mallin of San Francisco. Mallin, a 24-year-old computer engineer, grew up with a Reform background, and began studying more about Judaism and Jewish history after a trip to Israel four years ago. He plans to move to Israel in the next few years.
The Yosemite program was an excellent way to immerse oneself in the yeshiva lifestyle, he said, without committing to a whole year — or longer.
"I have a lot of issues that I have to work out for myself," said Mallin, and "this reawakened me to a sense of urgency I feel about coming to terms with them."
Discussing the students, Kreitenberg said, "They are not necessarily going to be Orthodox, but they want to understand what it is to be Jewish in the modern world. Many of the rituals that go along with religion seem foreign and awkward, but rather than just a dry ritual, understanding that ritual sheds a lot of light on why we do what we do."
Kreitenberg decided to hold the mini-yeshiva in Yosemite with his friend Ken Alter, in memory of Rabbi Yaakov Rosenberg, who died 16 months ago. Kreitenberg and Alter met as students at U.C. Berkeley, and both became more observant after studying with Rosenberg in Israel. Rosenberg founded the program in Connecticut, and it was his dream to begin one in California.
"Rabbi Rosenberg reminded us that we had an obligation to go and help the Jewish world, and specifically, that if we had a Jewish education, we had to encourage others to get a Jewish education," he said.
Alter, who grew up in Alamo and now lives in Los Angeles, was primarily responsible for raising the funds for the program. He taught at Yosemite as well, and spent the whole time there with his family.
In addition to the rabbis, there were tutors who worked with the participants in the traditional method of studying text — in pairs. And the rabbis came with their wives and children, so "people get a whole picture of Judaism as a lifestyle, not just as an intellectual pursuit," said Alter.
It seemed to work, at least for Kasher, who said that whether he becomes fully observant after his yeshiva experience is not as important as knowing why he's making the choice.
"You don't want to feel like you're going to be told how to live a spiritual life and you're just going to do that. You want to feel like a large part comes out of you," he said.
Kasher said he wanted to learn from those who live it strictly, and then he will decide from there.
"Judaism is a system, which in itself works very well," he said. "And the rabbis at the yeshiva believe you will never really understand the importance of halachah unless you live it. You won't feel how well it works until you live it, and that's what it means to be observant."