By: Rivka Bennun  | 

‘There’s Nothing Like It’: Rabbanit Margot Botwinick Makes The Case for YU in Israel

Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for clarity and length with the approval of Rabbanit Botwinick. 

This past December, YU announced the launch of its Torat Tziyon Pilot Program, which, starting this upcoming fall, will allow students to study abroad in Israel. The program is set to offer a range of courses, a beit midrash program for both campuses and a YU community in Israel. I had the opportunity to speak to Rabbanit Margot Botwinick, who, together with her husband Rabbi Josh Botwinick, will be running the program that will be based on the YU Israel campus in Jerusalem. We sat down to discuss more about the program, what the draw is and what this means for YU.

Rivka Bennun: Thank you for sitting down to speak with me. Can you tell me a little bit about the nature of the program and what it is going to look like structurally and logistically? 

Margot Botwinick: Yes! Situated in YU’s Jerusalem campus, there will be learning in the morning from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. for the women, and from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. for the men. For the men, there’s the Gruss rebbeim (Rav Bednarsh and Rabbi Eisenstein) and my husband teaching shiur; for the women, Rabbanit Shani Taragin is the rosh beit midrash and there are class options with myself and other rebbeim and educators around Israel. There are afternoon secular classes, with renowned professors around Israel, and then night seder. For example, they just confirmed Gil Troy will be teaching a Zionism/History class, which will be incredible. On Shabbat, the men and women will daven together with Gruss. The graduate students will be part of the morning beit midrash learning too, which is a new concept for YU graduate programs.

RB: So it’s going to be a similar structure as to what the men now have uptown? Because that structure does not exist for the women at Stern. 

MB: Exactly. With Rabbanit Shani as rosh beit midrash, they are able implementing a new kind of vision. She structured the classes in a way that there is learning for the women from 9-12. But that’s only one option — if you don’t want that, or you’re not a beit midrash-type learner, there’s also the regular Judaics classes where people can fulfill their Judaic studies requirements too. 

So the idea is that no matter what form of learning you’re doing, everyone across the board is learning in the mornings. 

MB: You’re in the beit midrash, and some of the classes might even have a beit midrash element. There are also graduate students who are doing it, so the beit midrash is full, similar to how GPATS works here. By the way, this is another great article. Forget YU Israel — write about how the 9-12 beit midrash learning structure can be brought to the Beren Campus, too! Many before me have have noted that women generally have to wait until they are post-graduate to have a full morning learning program. Maybe if this takes off, they’ll consider offering a similar structure for undergraduates in Midtown, too. 

What do you think this means for YU on a broader scale? Do you think the future of YU is in Israel? 

MB: I’ll say this. It used to be that when people have an amazing experience in their seminary/yeshiva, and they decide they want to live in Israel, they’re told to go to America for college and then make aliyah. That’s often a backward and impractical plan — you get settled in America, you make connections there, you don’t improve your Hebrew, you don’t learn the lay of the land, and you’re not set up for success in Israel. Yet, somehow, that was the only option. We’ve been at IDC [Herzliya] for the past five years, and what we’re seeing is that that’s no longer the only option. For the first time, students are not listening to their teachers’ urges to go to YU or other colleges in America, they’re just choosing Israel. They’re not choosing Maryland over YU, or Barnard over Stern, they’re choosing Israel over America. When we started with OU-JLIC at IDC 5 years ago, there were only 30 or so yeshiva day school students; now there are hundreds. In fact, Nefesh B’Nefesh recently reported that for the first time, 18-34-year-olds are now the highest demographic that is making aliyah. It’s no longer young couples or retirees, it’s college students, who are going to IDC, Bar Ilan, Hebrew U, Tel Aviv, Technion, etc . Now here’s the critical question — how many of those hundreds of yeshiva day school graduates making aliyah would have chosen YU Israel, if it existed? I’m not exaggerating, there are at least 50 students in IDC alone right now who have told us they would be in YU in Israel now if it was an option. The Shabbat life, community feel and religious life at IDC and other Israeli college campuses are as inspiring as it gets, and are a crucial landing space for young olim. But a YU Israel would offer a structure, environment and Torah opportunities that are new to the Israel college scene, and it would serve such a clear need.

My husband and I went to YU and Stern, and thank God we eventually made it back to Israel. But my friends are all in America, my connections are in America, and we didn’t do the army which further distances us from mainstream Israeli society. It’s harder to make an impact in Israel until you become more Israeli and understand the lay of the land. Doing college in Israel and joining Israeli society at that stage of life is a huge advantage that we didn’t have. 

Right, because here there is a whole system of Torah learning and classes. 

MB: Yeah, there’s such an obvious need for it there. I think people don’t realize that when you’re here, the whole world feels like America. But the moment you get to Israel you realize there is a whole world there. YU knows this and is rising up to the occasion. There’s nothing like it there right now. 

When I first heard about the program, the idea that I got was that students who would otherwise go to YU are making aliyah, so if we have YU in Israel we will attract that group. 

MB: That’s exactly it. People are choosing places in Israel, and the religious environment and Torah learning opportunities are amazing, but YU is offering something unique. So the idea was, let’s build a YU in Israel. It’ll look a little different — we might have more of an emphasis on Hebrew classes to help people integrate into Israeli society — but YU recognizes it has a responsibility to do this.  They’re watching yeshiva day school students making aliyah at unprecedented rates, and have no choice but to attend “secular colleges” in Israel. 

It almost feels like it’s about time YU did something like this. 

MB: My group chat with Shani Taragin and Stephanie Strauss (executive director of YU in Israel) and my husband is called “ShehechiyanYU.” That’s really how it feels.

Something I was wondering is, how was news of this pilot program received by the roshei yeshiva and Torah educators of YU?

MB: Of course, well received! The roshei yeshiva Josh has spoken to are very excited and supportive. Rabbanit Shani has been in touch with Rav Schachter and others throughout the process. It might be that this is launching this year, but it's been a conversation for decades. Many have suggested having a rotation where they can each spend a year teaching on the Israel campus. Apparently, this has come up before, and the roshei yeshiva are excited to be a part of it.

From the perspective of the administration, do they view this as a mere addition to YU’s overall programming or do they see this going further?

MB: I think for now, the idea is to just get it started — we’re calling it a pilot program because we are focused on getting it launched. It’s very clear that there are long-term goals, but how long that should take, how it should happen — that’s a big question.

Photo Caption: Rabbanit Margot Botwinick

Photo Credit: Ohr Torah Stone