Empowered To Learn
Yeshiva’s Tuesday night study helps unify community.
As the clock ticks toward 8 on Tuesday nights in the Partners Study Hall of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah on the Newman Family Campus, Janet Snider, a Yeshiva graduate and Bingham Farms pediatrician, greets her study partner, Nancy Triest of a Huntington Woods, who works in sales and loves nurturing her Jewish identity.
A good friend suggested Janet, a Torah teacher, when Nancy was seeking a new study mentor. Talk about beshert, something “meant to be.” Says Nancy: “Janet is so wonderful.”
Nancy added, “We have been learning for a few years and have explored many different topics and themes that have interested one or both of us.
‘‘For example, we always spend time exploring each upcoming holiday, which makes those days much more meaningful.”
The two women take part in Tuesday night learning — flagship of the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program. This hour of informal learning hosted by the Southfield-based Yeshiva each week typically boasts upwards of 180 partnerships engaged in the same higher pursuit, all under the watch of Rabbi Bentzy Schechter, the program director, and Rabbi Avraham Cohen, the education director.
The lesson plan is not only to select and study Jewish text (Torah, Talmud and more), but also to enhance the learning through each partner’s experiences, whatever their levels of Torah observance. I’ve participated for nine of the program’s 17 years with the same partner, Janet’s husband, Stuart.
Embracing The Hum
Nancy Triest grew up Conservative and attended United Hebrew Schools, but she and her husband, Brent, now keep an Orthodox home. They have two children and two grandchildren. Nancy finds spiritual nourishment amid the Partners Study Hall.
“It’s powerful — tables upon tables of men and women conversing and learning Torah,” said Nancy, a past board member of Oakland County-based Tamarack Camps.
“Partners gets people to think and dig in,” she added. “The knowledge alone can’t help but pique your curiosity and make you richer.’’
Janet and Stuart Snider, parents of three and grandparents of one, are active in the Orthodox community. Janet calls all the Partners voices rising in study “contagious and motivating.”
“It makes you feel you are part of something much bigger, yet you can customize your studying to your chosen topic at your own speed and stop for questions, comments and discussion along the way,” Janet said. “So on the one hand, you’re part of this huge group, but at the same time, you’re part of just a team of two.”
“Partners in Torah has blossomed beyond any of our most hopeful expectations,” said Dr. Maury Ellenberg, Yeshiva board chair. “It has become the catalyst for amazing activities across the entire breadth of the Jewish community.”
The program is named for the late local couple Jean and Theodore Weiss.
“As Holocaust survivors who understood what the rebuilding of the Jewish people required,” Ellenberg said, “they were the perfect example to name the program for.”
Their family assisted in starting the Partners endowment; family members also participate in Partners and call the naming a high honor.
Dr. Conrad Giles, former president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, has studied with Yeshiva President Gary Torgow for 12 years. Giles aptly calls Partners a “great community builder, connecting the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities in a greater understanding of one another.”
The program, which began with 10 partnerships, has become a critical component of the Jewish Detroit learning landscape, including a growing partnership with the Jewish Community Center. The JCC outreach is one of the newest examples of how Partners has become a Yeshiva division that provides many avenues to learn for Jews of varied ages, backgrounds and interests.
No Caste System
The Partners program is Orthodox-led, but non-judgmental. The Orthodox mentors include rabbis, professionals and homemakers. They hope their partners deepen their religious understanding, appreciation and practice as a result of all the time invested, but it’s not about forcing change. Torah itself, no matter how religiously observant you are, is a life changer. God’s teachings are a unique gift that can instruct, uplift and even transform, depending on how tightly you cling to them.
The common thread to Partners is a desire to study Torah in an inviting atmosphere. No two journeys as a Jew are alike. The beauty of Partners lies in elevating your Jewish soul and expanding your understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Partners is designed to supplement, not obfuscate, learning with a favorite rabbi, at your synagogue, as part of a chavurah or via another Jewish organization.
Ideally, the totality of what you learn should encourage you to value your Judaism more. The cherished parts of your Jewish portfolio typically are what help make you a better Jew with a more fulfilling expression of Jewish life.
Judge Mark Goldsmith of the Detroit-based U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan studies through Partners with Rabbi Doniel Neustadt, head of the Vaad Harabonim of Greater Detroit.
“He has elevated my understanding of Talmud beyond what I could have imagined,” Goldsmith said. “Partners is critical to my spiritual growth.”
Partners is the Detroit Jewish community’s largest program for continuing adult education. In a program so large and with participants ranging from Orthodox to secular, some partnerships don’t work. For example, lack of connection from either side would quickly doom a partnership.
Rabbi Cohen is happy to find a different partner for anyone who feels pressured or uninspired. The noble intent is to make each shidduch (match) enduring. Cohen relishes making successful matches, based on a variety of subjective factors. A bonus comes when those matches evolve into lasting friendships beyond the study hall, which happened with both of Janet Snider’s partnerships. A weekly commitment to study is ideal, but if partners get together only twice a month, well … no one is taking attendance.
In a significant disclaimer that addresses an occasional concern, Cohen, who as a teenager at yeshivah dreamed of advancing 1-on-1 learning, told me: “Tuesday night Partners has removed the erroneous notion that religious Jews look down on non-religious or less-religious Jews — or worse, don’t feel that they’re Jewish. Everyone in the room is accepted; we don’t want negative vibes. Every Jew is a Jew — and is respected.”
Rabbi Joshua Bennett of Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue in West Bloomfield, who has worked alongside Rabbi Leiby Burnham of the Partners educational team, amplified Cohen’s point. Bennett says Burnham “is a mentsh who honors me as a rabbi” and “who cares deeply about learning for learning’s sake.”
Bennett continued: “I am totally confident sending anybody to Leiby knowing he or she will come away from that experience enriched and honored for their commitment to Judaism at whatever level they are comfortable at.”
Rabbi Schechter, the program director, says a key to Partners is its priority of face-to-face learning; studying by phone is an option only when getting together isn’t possible. Many of the partnerships validate his claim that Partners sparks a rapport that enables people who otherwise would never do so to sit together and learn.
Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, serving the Conservative movement, is former spiritual leader of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. “Studying in a customized way like Partners in Torah is clearly an attractive model,” Nevins told me.
He senses an excitement building around Torah study throughout the Jewish world. Since he’s based in New York now, Nevins couldn’t comment on Partners Detroit directly, but did add, “I think the world of Rabbi Cohen.”
A National Model
The concept of Partners as a way to learn isn’t a local innovation of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, Michigan’s largest Jewish day school with about 850 students. Still, Partners Detroit is an independent program serving Metro Detroit. Although not part of the national Partners program run by Torah Umesorah’s Brooklyn offices, Partners Detroit did spring from the vision of the national program’s founder, Rabbi Eli Gewirtz.
“Having worked in several Jewish communities, I appreciate just how unique Partners in Torah is here,” said Jeffrey Lasday, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s Alliance for Jewish Education. “We are very fortunate in Detroit to have an organization that is able to bridge the chasm between Orthodox and liberal and secular Jews.”
Partners in Torah stems conceptually from the flames derived from vigorous conversing. The Hebrew word for fire is aish. God came down Mount Sinai “in fire,” the midrash relates. The midrash teaches that Torah is fire: that if you come too near, you get burned; that if you stay too far away, you get cold. The Partners goal is to enlighten and inspire, applying the “embers” of conversation. As Pirkei Avot/Ethics of Our Fathers relates, discussion leads to fuller understanding; individually, we don’t know all the answers.
Shaping Common Ground
The Partners setting on Tuesday nights is a microcosm of Jewish Detroit, which numbers about 65,000 Jews. But Lasday is right: In a time of divide among the streams of Judaism, Partners in Torah as well as other Orthodox-rooted outreach programs — Aish HaTorah, Chabad and Ohr Somayach come to mind — use a love of Jewish text and text study “to create a united Jewish community of learners.”
My Partners mentor, Stuart Snider, is board secretary of the Yeshiva. He’s former local president of Hebrew Free Loan. With me, his pay is my thirst to learn.
A lawyer by day, Stuart is a thoughtful teacher who shares my passions for precisely reciting Hebrew as well as combing the wisdom of our sages and protecting our people’s eternal bond with Israel. The study hall buzz infuses each of us with a zest that carries over into the learning each of us, in very different ways, do throughout the week.
Stuart, as a Partners mentor, must come well prepared.
“The near-trite statement, ‘You have to know it to teach it,’ weekly replays itself,” he said. “We may spend 45 minutes reviewing just a couple of lines of text, but that represents a lot of beforehand looking and thinking both as to content and presentation.”
A hush falls over the Partners room during the last five minutes of each Tuesday night session as Rabbi Cohen or one of his Partners associates, Rabbi Burnham or Rabbi Tzvi Muller, share, with insight, clarity and often humor, a message about the weekly parshah (Torah portion).
As Nancy Triest so aptly put it, “It’s our food for thought — something to take home.”
On a recent Tuesday night, Rabbi Burnham’s message conveyed how Torah teaches that nothing, on the surface, is good or bad; everything is dependent on how we use it.
“Things that seem to be terrible,” he said, “could be huge blessings.”
For example, nuclear power is not good or bad; it’s how you use it.
“Everything in life, good or bad,” the rabbi said, “will be determined by how we use it, not by what it’s made of.”
Young Learners, Fast Friends
Simcha Tzippy Cohen, 28, of Southfield, daughter of Rabbi Avraham Cohen, and Elyse Thakur, 29, of Royal Oak, my daughter, have studied together intermittently through Partners in Torah since age 14, having met at a Congregation Machon L’Torah Shabbaton in Southfield.
Even after high school, when Elyse moved to Boston and later Washington, D.C., to study, and Simcha Tzippy moved to Israel to study and later to live, they stayed in touch.
Over the years, they have helped each other along life’s journeys. They’ve also spent some Shabbats and holidays together. Both are now married. Simcha Tzippy and her husband, Yehudah Cohen, have five children; he studies at the Yeshiva’s Bais Yehudah Kollel. Elyse and her husband, Dr. Siddarth Thakur, a resident in physiatry, are members of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield.
Through Partners, the close friends have tackled an array of subjects, from the Torah portion to Shabbat rituals to life decisions.
“Simcha Tzippy’s ability to connect important, deep and complex Jewish ideas and relate them to our everyday life is amazing,” Elyse said. “She reminds me about how important it is to bring Judaism home not only on holidays and Shabbat, but every day — with prayer and relationships, and in our actions and behaviors.”
“Elyse always has questions, which I love,” said Simcha Tzippy. “It’s much more interesting that way.”
Spreading Kindness Every Day
When Partners Detroit’s Rabbi Tzvi Muller started teaching at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield a few years back, he drew 15 participants. Soon, his Torah-driven study sessions attracted many more, and in the summer, hundreds.
“So I met with Gary Torgow, president of the Yeshiva,” JCC executive director Mark Lit said, “and suggested the rabbi have an office at the JCC and really develop programming for us.”
“We then launched the Kindness Project — ‘Love It. Learn It. Live It.’ — as a JCC and Jewish community resource,” Lit said.
Today, the more than 100 kindness initiatives, invoking Torah, help nurture kindness in daily life. Initiatives include Kindness Stars (recognizing, celebrating and inspiring teens who do extraordinary deeds) and Kind-a-thon (a kindness-a-day marathon for kids). There’s also a kindness leadership curriculum.
On a June 3-12 kindness mission to Israel, 19 mission-goers volunteered with organizations and groups serving people in need. The corps picked vegetables to feed the hungry, played sports with kids from lower-income families, ran a carnival for immigrant children, visited lonely soldiers, painted a day school’s sports field and assisted an organization that loans medical equipment.
Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education is a Kindness Project co-sponsor of JCC-offered learning at the Max M. Fisher Federation Building in Bloomfield Township.
Says Muller: “We present Jewish teachings on how to treat each other with kindness in virtually the entire scope of human interaction. We’re working with the JCC specifically to bring kindness, a piece of Jewish values, to every JCC program. We want a study piece or a social action opportunity or something else to energize the idea of kindness.”
Tuesday night study is Partners in Torah’s flagship, with an average of two new partnerships a week, but the rabbinic staff also provides learning in homes and offices as well as on university campuses. Classes are held in various locations throughout the year.
The Women’s Division of Partners Detroit — led by Chaya Rubin, Aviva Schechter, Sara Aliza Scheinberg and Henny Shoshana — offers assorted activities: holiday events, Israel missions for moms, lunch-and-learns, classes, lectures, challah-baking classes, Shabbatons, retreats as well as programming tailored to young mothers, young professionals and daughters of division participants. Last year, the division held a Superstorm Sandy fundraiser.
Rabbi Leiby Burnham, a board member of Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit Department, develops learning opportunities specifically for young adults — such as Dinner Drinks & Discussion and identity-building trips.
“I could teach something 100 times, but my students always approach it from a different angle, with fresh questions,” Burnham said.
All Partners classes are recorded, with CDs housed in a library that is open and free. Partners maintains online archiving for hundreds of classes and outside resources.
Donation and foundation dollars underwrite Partners’ annual budget of about $500,000. Other educators are Rabbi Dovid Bausk and Rabbi Baruch Gendelman. Rachel Leah Black is program coordinator. Chanche Frankel oversees special projects. Shira Klein is administrative assistant.
While donations always are accepted for Partners, there is no cost to participate in, and never solicitation at, Tuesday night learning; contact Partners Detroit: 248-JUDAISM. Other Partners classes may carry a fee.
A free subscription to Partners Detroit’s erev Shabbat e-newsletter, featuring the Torah portion, is available through Rabbi Burnham: firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Robert Sklar, Contributing Editor