Let’s study Torah together

There is a meme that often appears after a disaster or tragedy strikes.

A governor or mayor will appear on TV and say something like this: “Yes, it was catastrophic, but we [name of a state or city “-ians”/”-ites”/”-ers”] are tough. We stick together, help each other out, and are not cowed by adversity; we know how to cope with and overcome it. We’ve done so in the past and shall do again.” And they say this with conviction, as if their state or city is different from others; as if their constituents’ indomitable reactions are special and extraordinary, perhaps even unique.

But of course they’re not. Governor Christie notwithstanding, New Jerseyans did not handle superstorm Sandy any better — or any worse — than did the residents of, say, Maryland, Delaware, or New York. Those people also stuck together, also helped out their neighbors, and also plowed ahead as best they could under dire circumstances. People from all geographic locations rose to the occasion, rolled up their sleeves, and helped their neighbors when misfortune hit, as so many others have done before and will do again.

Jewish institutions and communities also suffer from this malady. Go to any shul or yeshiva dinner and listen to how the speeches paint a picture of an institution whose qualities, classes, programs, teachers, rabbis, students, congregants, and honorees cannot be matched anywhere. And who doesn’t think his or her community is special — in fact the best possible place to live and raise and educate their families? Who doesn’t think everyone would be happy moving there? “We offer everything you could want to live a full Jewish life, plus we’re warm and welcoming,” we crow.

Yet beneath it all we know the truth; while there are certainly differences among our institutions and communities, most, at their core, often are quite similar to their neighbors in both strengths and weaknesses. Nonetheless, we like to think that like Lake Wobegon, all our communities are strong, our shuls good looking, and our yeshivot above average. How lucky we are!

But before cynicism overtakes me completely, I need to remember the broken clock that, as the saying goes, is right twice a day. Sometimes our individual communities are, indeed, special; unique places in which we are rightfully proud to live. And for me, two moments the Teaneck Jewish community is telling the right time are its annual Yom Hashoah commemoration, sponsored by the Jewish Community Teaneck Council of Greater Teaneck, and the now annual community beit midrash sponsored by Congregations Beth Sholom and Rinat Yisrael. (Full disclosure: my wife has been a member of the organizing committee of the first for many years, and I am a member of the organizing committee of the second.)

The Yom Hashoah commemoration, which dates back to 1983, is truly a neighborhood project in which the entire Jewish community can, and does, participate. It is co-sponsored by 24 shuls and organizations: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, secular, philanthropic, Zionist, and Jewish war veterans. (If I accidently forgot yours, I apologize.) And the multifaceted, multigenerational, multidenominational audience, which fills up the Teaneck High School auditorium every year — balcony included! — reflects that diversity, as does the participation of rabbis of all denominations and genders.

In a world where too many build walls separating Jews, Teaneck, on Yom Hashoah, is a model of how working together can produce extraordinarily meaningful results.

The relatively new community beit midrash has a similar feel and tone. From one perspective it’s nothing special. Two shuls co-sponsoring Torah learning? Happens all the time. And it does, except not when one is Modern Orthodox and the other Conservative. That does not happen all the time. And having the rabbis of both shuls teach at the same event also is something rare in our unfortunately divided Jewish world.

So, while a little fuss arose behind the scenes last year, the view in front of the curtain was glorious. More than 200 people — mainly from the two sponsoring shuls, joined by several brave souls from other shuls and a few from outside the community — packed Rinat’s ballroom, studying a myriad of texts, in Hebrew and English, put together by two scholars, one professional and one not, each representing one of the sponsors. The fascinating topic was “Confronting Our Enemies: ‘Pour Out Your Wrath’ or ‘Do not Abhor the Egyptian.’” The participants worked in small groups led by facilitators, including local scholars from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University. Those participants with decades of Jewish education and learning discussed and argued ideas with — and learned from — those with little or no Jewish educational background. At the risk of sounding a bit corny, neighbors realized they were neighbors. Friendships were made. It was an exhilarating experience of learning Torah lishma — of learning Torah for its own sake.

And so we’re doing it again. A second program will be held in Beth Sholom on Shabbat afternoon before mincha on April 2. We will study texts on the topic of “‘Lefichach Anachnu Chayavim Lehodot (Therefore It Is Our Duty To Thank)’: Can We Always Be Grateful? Should We Be? A Communal Study of Gratitude in Jewish Tradition.” (The program will be only a bit longer than the title.)

Once again our volunteer scholars have gathered fascinating texts for the participants to grapple with and learn from, and group facilitators have signed up to aid in the analysis and discussion of those texts.

Although the time for registration has passed, it’s a Jewish event, so deadlines are probably flexible. Go ahead and register (google Rinat Yisrael or Beth Sholom, Teaneck, and beit midrash.) And make sure to attend the Yom Hashoah commemoration at Teaneck High School on May 4 at 7:30 p.m. You’ll be glad you did.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.