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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Am Ha’aretz

By Rabbi Sender Haber

A friend of mine is the founder and director of a gardening program at the University of Maryland. They plant a garden, tend to it, and donate the fruits to the needy.

The students at Maryland call their program ‘Am Ha’aretz’, but I think that it could just as successfully be a program for budding Talmidei Chachamim. Not for me, because I hate gardening, but for the kids out there who want to work hard at Gemara for ten hours a day and plant cucumbers at night.

I read in The Google Story that the owners of Google have always encouraged their engineers to spend 20% of their time - about one day a week - working on personal projects that interest them. Gmail, Google News, and more than fifty percent of Google’s new products are a result of this creativity time. It is considered one of the secrets of Google’s success.

Google instituted the 20% policy to attract creative and talented people. The founders of Google understood that the brightest minds work best in environments that encourage and support creativity. Most of the personal projects don’t work or make no money, but Google always wins because they have the loyalty of the world’s best programmers and engineers.

Imagine if we could make this program a part of our culture. We already have highly motivated young men and women devoting their spare time to personal studies and chessed, but what if we encouraged them and gave them license to learn anything they wanted?

Imagine a yeshiva where students were encouraged to spend an hour and a half a day learning a subject of their choice. Students could choose Chassidus, Nach, Zeraim, Rambam, Tur, Shulchan Aruch, Rav Nachman’s stories, Taamei Haminhagim, Seder Hadoros, Medrash, Zohar, Ramban, Mussar, Responsa, Astronomy, Practical Rabbinics, Chofetz Chaim, Dikduk, Yerushalmi, or Gemara and Rashi. They could choose to learn quickly or slowly, to study one sefer in depth or to check out every commentary on the topic, to study alone or with a chavrusa, in their rooms, outside, or in the Beis Medrash.

Nobody would lose, because 80% of the time would still be spent on core curriculum; everybody would gain, because students who are already motivated they would be driven and satisfied by the opportunity to learn where their neshama leads them.

And what about the boys who aren’t driven to learn anything at all, or the boys who are satisfied to learn ‘just’ eight hours a day? Couldn’t they use their 20% to follow their hearts? We learn so much about how Noach cultivated kindness by caring for the animals and how Avraham built our nation on a foundation of Chessed. Why not let those students use their 20% to make their mark on the world?

Perhaps even more important are the students who deal with emotional and psychological challenges. What if they could devote 20% of their time learning more about themselves, their self worth, and their personal strategies for growth?

In my limited experience, I’ve found that kids who have trouble with the Yeshiva or Bais Yaakov system have trouble with just one thing. The “one thing” could be clothes, hair, music, or friends, but it is usually just one issue that makes it difficult for them to embrace the other 80% of the system that they love. I’ve found that even the students who are successful are not immune to frustrations – maybe they want to learn something else or at a different pace – it’s just that the nature of their frustrations make them easier to overcome and deal with.

Maybe we need an 80/20 formula. If a student is embracing 80% of ‘the system’, maybe we need to give them space to explore the other 20% on their own. As long as they are respecting halacha and not causing harm to themselves or others, maybe we need to let them be.

Many years ago, Rav Moshe Feinstein suggested that we give 10% (maaser) of our learning time to others. Maybe we need to take Google’s lead and teach our students to give 20% (a chomesh) of their productive time to themselves.

Jesse Rabinowitz and his troop of Am Ha’aratzim are exercising their “20%”. They are spending their time on a project that runs counter to the expectations that people have of serious Jewish college students, but they are not doing anything that precludes them from being serious Jewish college students. Am Ha’aretz tells me that their motivation is 100% Torah based and that they have regular learning sessions to connect Torah agricultural practices to their mission. They are doing something which is fulfilling and productive, but not at all expected. We need to encourage others to do the same.

The Torah doesn’t tell us to be successful despite our ambitions and aspirations; the Torah tells us to become successful by identifying the unique ambitions and aspirations that lie deep in our neshamos. Hashem told Avraham: “Lech Lecha!” –“Go to yourself!”, and at a time when the whole world was going one way, Avraham and Sarah were able to do just that. They picked themselves up and went the other way. They were doing something that had never been done before and they weren’t sure exactly where they were going or how things were going to turn out, but Hashem promised that as long as they followed in His ways it would be a journey full of bracha, hatzlacha, and closeness to Hashem.

For more on Lech Lecha see

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