Joseph C. Kaplan

A Shortcut to Knowledge

One thing I learned from 30-plus years of commuting to New York City from Bergen County was that every carpool has its own rules governing driving responsibilities, pickup times, lateness, drop offs, and expenses. My first carpool even had an intriguing rule (predating me) against speaking ill of another rider’s spouse! Try as I might, I never learned the back story on that one.

In addition to rules, every carpool also has a shortcut to the George Washington Bridge (through Englewood/Fort Lee) or the Lincoln Tunnel (Weehawken/Hoboken). Since each carpool thinks its shortcut is the best, sharing is not considered a virtue because too many people using the same shortcut quickly leads to overcrowding and loss of usefulness. In fact, a number of years ago there was an article in the New York Times about the use of shortcuts in commuting to the city over the GWB, and the reporter who personally made that daily commute discussed his mixed feeling about whether to divulge his own. I guess his editor made him do it, because there it was for all to see. Not a big deal to me; my carpool’s shortcut was better.

But I feel very much like that reporter now. I’ve wanted to write for some time about a program I’ve been attending in Teaneck for almost two decades, but have hesitated because one of the many wonderful things about the program is its intimacy. Thus, singing its praises can result, like publicized shortcuts, in overcrowding and a loss of one aspect that makes it special. Nonetheless, its praises deserve to be sung, so I’ll just have to hope for the best.

The program is the Davar Institute, the brainchild of a married couple, Larry Krule and Susan Fader, with Larry continuing, as attendees all know, as its (benevolent) dictator. Although there were some early stabs at different formats, Davar’s primary mission quickly evolved into inviting speakers to Teaneck six or seven or eight times a year to deliver three lectures over Shabbat: a relatively short one after Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night, a lengthier one usually followed by a Q&A period on Shabbat morning after a post leining kiddush and before musaf, and a third on Shabbat afternoon after mincha.

The davening is mechitzah-down-the-middle, non-egalitarian, non-partnership-minyan-style modern Orthodox (how do you like that retronym!), but to be frank, the services, though pleasant enough, with singing and highly competent ba’alei keri’ah, are not the draw. Nor is the kiddush, though the cholent and kugel are tasty and the socializing amiable. (Don’t ask me about the single malt; I’m a Diet Coke person.) Rather, it’s really about the speakers.

If it’s of Jewish interest, someone has spoken about it at Davar. There have been presentations, usually with detailed source material, on Talmud and Tanach (traditional and academic), Israel and Israeli politics, literary analysis, poetry, midrash, theodicy, Maimonides, halacha and psak, sex, politics, belief, art, love, ethics, literature, science, kedusha, archeology, agunot, chassidut, conversion, communal and rabbinic authority, and on and on and on. This list is truly just the tip of the iceberg.

As for the speakers, they’re as eclectic as their topics. There are no rules regarding gender, age, profession, political leanings, or denominational, or, indeed, faith community affiliation. Rather, if they have something important and thoughtful to say about some aspect of Judaism, and they can say it well, they are welcome at Davar.

And this broad spectrum of speakers exists even though the davening is, as noted, Orthodox, as are most of the attendees. Indeed, a popular quip is that a basic qualification of a Davar speaker is that he or she is someone who would not be invited to speak in any of Teaneck’s many Orthodox shuls. Now that’s not really true; some speakers have spoken in such shuls, a few are or were members, and others certainly would be welcome in many. Nonetheless, there’s more than an element of truth lying beneath the surface of that wisecrack.

To give you an idea of how eclectic the group of speakers is, here’s a partial listing of the professors, Talmudists, lawyers, journalists, writers, rabbis, activists, scholars, artists, intellectuals, political scientists and politicians, communal and religious leaders, university presidents, roshei yeshiva, scientists, and educators who have taught us, some more than once. Many of the names may be familiar even without their honorifics, which I’m intentionally omitting, and for those you don’t recognize, well, that’s what Google’s for.

So: Menachem Ben Sasson, Avi Ravitzky, Josef Stern, Susan Weiss, Menachem Kellner, Avi Weiss, Seth Farber, Chana Henkin, Herzl Hefter, Dina Najman, Danny Gordis, Yossi Klein Halevi, Christine Hayes, Marc Brettler, Ysoschar Katz, Shani Tzoref, Simcha Krauss, Devorah Steinmetz, Dov Linzer, Marc Shapiro, Jennie Rosenfeld, Peter Beinart, Judy Klitsner, Dovid Silber, Erin Leib Smolker, Michael Melchior, Saul Berman, Tobi Kahn, Chaim Seidler-Feller, Eugene Korn, Matti Friedman, Alan Kadish, Michael (Buzzy) Fishbane, Susanne Last Stone, Moshe Halbertal, Daniel Sperber, Judith Hauptman, James Kugel, Marty Lockshin (don’t bother; all the jokes about the last two have already been made), Tova Hartman, Jonathan Sarna, and Shai Held. And I could easily post another equally long and impressive list without repeating a single name.

Note that this listing doesn’t include some wife and husband teams like (again not all inclusive) Blu and Yitz Greenberg, Yehudah Mirsky and Tamar Biala, and Tamar and Ya’akov Ross, or the single-lecture and sometimes non-Shabbat speakers like Malcolm Hoenlein, Hillel Halkin, Joseph Telushkin, David Hartman, Ari Berman, Nahum Sarna, Stephen P. Cohen, David Ellenson, and Chaim Brovender, among others.

While the Shabbat speakers are the heart of what Davar does, it has tried other programming (some still in effect) like the eclectic non-Shabbat music presentations (e.g., string ensemble and bluegrass evenings; remember, it’s Davar), an author series and book club, movies, a Joy of Text podcast, a fellows program, a wine tasting, a Tanach series, and Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur services. And helping to make Davar the community it is, an active email list keeps us up-to-date on the full gamut of lifecycle events and Jewish (local and beyond) news.

All of the latter functions are fine, but quite frankly, my shul, which is a very important component of my Jewish spiritual, intellectual, and social life, provides that to me. Yet, although my synagogue has an outstanding adult education program (in which I’ve proudly been involved for many years), it simply can’t do what Davar does — put denomination and dogma aside to provide the widest possible array of thoughtful, exciting, controversial, stimulating, and informative lectures on any and all matters that impact on our Jewish lives.

Davar not only teaches and informs, but also, at times, challenges some of our most deeply held beliefs. But it usually does so in a gentle way, more to make us think rather than to necessarily change what we believe.

If any of this speaks to you, try us out. But don’t all come at once; we don’t want this shortcut to knowledge to become overly congested.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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