Lessons from Five Years of Jewish Learning

Adam Barron, Jewish Learning Committee Chair

Making Jewish learning informative, fun and relational is the goal of the Jewish Learning Committee at BCC. After five years of co-chairing this committee, here is some of what I have learned and hope to help bring to the congregation in the future.

Jewish learning takes us back to our very beginnings. Moses, giving his farewell speech to the Israelites, stated, “You shall teach [God’s Mitzvoth} to your children to speak with them, when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.” We read this regularly as part of our Shabbat service in the V’ahavta, following the Shema.

In 70 CE the Second Temple was destroyed, making Levitical animal sacrifices obsolete. Then memorizing, discussing, and learning scriptures became essential to fill the void, and Jewish leaders after that time became known as rabbis or “teachers.”

Now in 2017 we are a congregation of mostly college graduates, many of us holding an abundance of postgraduate degrees. As a group we may not be particularly physically strong or agile, but we can definitely learn.

Our successful learning events have fit into several genres. The first is The Basics. Rabbi Lisa taught and coordinated an Introduction to Judaism course. Hebrew educator Todd Shotz gave a class on Hebrew Pronunciation. Rabbi Heather taught Prayerbook Hebrew, where we gained some vocabulary, and learned roots, prefixes and pronouns. Some enthusiastic members learned basic torah tropes, practiced chanting, leading to becoming B’Nai Mitzvah.

With the help of our rabbis, we ventured into the timeless world of Biblical and Talmudic Writings as Literature. Over ten weeks with Rabbi Rachel Adler we explored First and Second Samuel, the amazing life and times of King David. We saw what the prophets had to say on social justice, and discussed the less studied Megilloth of Ruth, Lamentations and Ecclesiastes. In a Beit Midrash session Rabbi Lisa spoke to us on making our way through Talmud, including how to look up specific topics.   We soaked in the timeless wisdom of Pirkei Avot. In other classes, given by Rabbi Adler and BCC member Maggie Parkhurst, we read texts and imagined that Golems and Jewish Magic might really exist.

In Book Events, guest writers shared their stories of severe trials, and sometimes redemption. An elderly group of childhood Holocaust survivors moved us with their stories in How We Survived. Yiscah Smith shocked and delighted us with her memoir of her torturous coming out as a transgender Israeli Orthodox Jew in Forty Years in the Wilderness. Leah Lax read from Uncovered, recounting her becoming a Hasidic Jew, marrying, then becoming a lesbian and tearing herself away again from Hasidism. Other book events related to social justice. In Justice in the City, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen applied Talmudic writings to create a modern city where the rich are not insulated from hearing the cries of the poor. In Hope into Practice, author Penny Wasserman recounted her work facilitating collaboration between Palestinian and Israeli woman, finding common understanding.

Rabbi Heather gave us a series of survey courses. In Jewish Theology through the ages, we learned how beliefs changed in Biblical, Early Rabbinic, Medieval and Mystical, Modern and Post-Holocaust times, examining work from a great many great thinkers. Then we took something from each period to formulate our personal theology. Other survey courses focused on Modern Midrash and Prophets of the Bible, of which the writings of Ezekiel were especially fascinating.

Other more experiential classes explored feelings tied to motions, images and sensations. Cantor Juval gave yearly classes showing how cantorial music shapes the worship of High Holidays. Other courses included Jewish Dance, Drum Circles and BCC member Ginger Jacobs’s Challah making. We got to practice our creativity in Steven Reign’s Poetry as Memoir class.

We have also explored more contemporary issues. A minyan of us took on a most illustrative eight-month study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given by our own BCC member and professor, Robert Levy. When a number of BCC members had loved ones with neurologic issues, Rabbi Lisa led us in several sessions of Brain Matters discussions, covering Alzheimer’s, autism and discussions of the teenage brain, with contributions of BCC experts. BCC member Aviyah Farkas helped us address concerns with future planning in a multi-faceted discussion of Advanced Planning, which included a speaker panel. Finally, for those concerned with our current political mess and what we can do to help, BCC member, UCLA professor and attorney Beth Ribet gave us a 6-week course on U.S. Civics for Jews.

So what is on our Jewish Learning wish list for 5778? Are more of us ready to become Bat or Bar Mitzvah? This was a great experience for 13 of us in 2014, forming friendships and celebrating a Jewish milestone together.

Personally, I would like to further improve my prayerbook Hebrew skills, perhaps joining a Sunday study group under the guidance of one of our BCC B’Nai Mitzvah tutors. There are as many options as there are ideas. Anyone who knows of potential speakers, or who has ideas, please share them with our committee. If you can speak or teach or join our committee, better yet. Come to our events, and be sure to bring your curiosity.



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