Redefining Devekut for the iPhone Generation

In October 2016, author and speaker Simon Sinek posted a YouTube video entitled Millennials in the Workplace that quickly went viral. In that clip he makes the following statement: “Too many kids don’t know how to form deep and meaningful relationships.”

He claims that millennials (the generation born after 1984) don’t have the tools to create real, intimate relationships, as they are constantly looking for the next hit of dopamine that comes from receiving a text or a Facebook like. Instead of turning to friends or family for support when they are faced with stress or loneliness, they turn instead to their internet devices.

Over the last seven years of working in Jewish education with North American overseas students studying abroad at the Hebrew University, I’ve seen how connected our students are to their phones. I’ve watched them during their breaks, checking Facebook as they talk with each other, and liking their friends’ pictures from last weekend’s trip while they are sitting right across the table from them.

Via social media they look like they’re having the time of their lives at Hebrew U; but when I see them constantly texting and messaging and liking, it leaves me wondering if they are more connected to the Wi-Fi than to each other, and all the more so to Judaism.

So as a Jewish educator I find myself asking the following question: how can I get these students as engaged with Torah learning as they are with Snapchat and Instagram?

Let me elaborate. I don’t just want them to enjoy engaging with Torah while they are involved in our program. I want them to experience devekut, a true and lifelong intimate connection to Torah and to G-d, like the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin states: “What does it mean in Deuteronomy when it says, ‘You are davekim to Hashem your G-d today?’ [You are connected] like two dates stuck together.”

Two dates stuck together are not easily pulled apart. Two dates stuck together cannot be interrupted by a SMS or a Whatsapp. And even when the two dates are separated, they carry part of the other with them.

So how can we facilitate devekut to Torah when the only devekut many of these students know is devekut to their phones?

Based on my experience, the best educational model we can offer millennials is also the oldest: learning Torah b’chavruta, or learning in pairs.

Why does learning  b’chavruta work so well for millennials?

First of all, in light of Sinek’s comment and my own experiences, I’ve seen that many students do crave a deep and meaningful relationship to Judaism. The problem is that most of them just don’t know how to access it. Learning b’chavruta allows such a relationship to develop naturally.

We pair each interested student with an appropriate volunteer chavruta, and from the first time that they sit together, they discuss matters of meaning and substance, i.e., “What was your relationship with Judaism like growing up,” or “What Jewish texts or stories do you find the most challenging?” Immediately the student is sharing his or her feelings and expressing vulnerability with a live person sitting across from them. The texts that they continue to explore together become the platform for intimacy and openness.

And when the relationship truly starts to flourish, the conversation moves off the page and turns into what I call Torat Chaim, the Torah of Life, where life struggles and deep personal questions are put out on the table. The intimacy of chavruta learning uniquely allows for such an exchange, and through the process the emergence of authentic relationship.

Secondly, the chavruta learning experience is essentially interactive and personal. When students are sharing their challenges or asking questions, they become so invested in the conversation they completely forget about their phones.

That’s because a good chavruta experience is always a dialogue, and not a monologue. We tell our volunteers to learn with the students, and not to teach them. Even if the volunteer knows much more information than the student, the goal is for the process to be one of mutual revelation and exploration. And if the chavruta doesn’t know the answer, an appropriate response is, “I don’t know,” or even, “I’m not sure, that always bothered me as well.”

The Maharal of Prague notes this beautifully in Netiv HaTorah, and explains that the power of learning b’chavruta elevates each person in the pair to a level he or she could not have reached otherwise. The exchange of perspectives and questions exposes new facets to the learning.

In those moments of true exchange, the students are totally engrossed in the conversation. They are completely engaged because the insights and the questions are their own. They are contributing as well as learning.

And when I look around the room during the Beit Midrash program, I see devekut all around me. I see students smiling and laughing with their chavruta as they learn. I’ve even seen them crying as they share intimate details of their lives with each other. Like two dates, they are completely stuck together.

True, when the volunteer gets up to go to the bathroom, the student will pull out his phone. But not during the learning.

And when our students leave Hebrew U after their semester abroad, we encourage them to make their own chavrutot back home, or even to start their own chavruta or discussion-based learning programs. Many make chavrutot with friends or campus educators. Several have been successful in starting chavruta-style learning at their home campuses, including American, Penn, Kansas, and UC Davis. Two dates that were stuck together always carry the other with them.

What about the classic rabbi-student model, you may ask? Is there no place for a classic lecture for millennials today? In my experience, a frontal lecture with little to no interaction will have little to no long-term effect. Dynamic Torah teachers never fail to impress with their knowledge and their charisma. But without a doubt at some point during the class, the phones will come out. No matter how much the students are enjoying what’s being said, the fear of missing out on an even more exciting experience gnaws away at their subconscious. And if there is no chance for the teacher to continue the relationship with the student after the class, even the most inspiring points will be quickly forgotten.

I preach about this methodology not only from my experience as an educator, but from my own personal experience as well. I too strive for devekut. As much as I enjoy my own quiet moments engrossed in a book, I find that my Torah learning is always sweeter when shared with another. I have a chavruta before Shacharit to help me get out of bed on time in the morning. I have a chavruta on Shabbat to make sure that my day of rest is more than delicious food and extra sleep. Learning Torah together is the most meaningful way I’ve found to connect with my friends, and my chavrutot have become my closest friends.

The word chavruta truly speaks for itself; if we want to be more connected, and if we want our students to be more connected, then chavruta, from the root chibur, to connect, is the best solution we can offer.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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