Expanding the Table: Chavruta as a Partnership Model

The January issue of Sh’ma Now explores the Jewish sensibility of “chavruta/learning partnerships – whether the traditional study method of the beit midrash could be applied to other arenas where we work in partnered ways. What might we draw and apply from the pedagogy of chavruta? The issue includes essays by Zac Kamenetz who contextualizes chavruta for readers; Orit Kent and Allison Cook, who share the underpinnings of the pedagogy; Aliza Kline & Sarit Wishnevski, who examine models where Jewish organizations collaborate more effectively; and Joshua Avedon, who draws on the work of community organizer Saul Alinksy to examine the potential successes and failures of collaborative partnerships. Each issue of Sh’ma Now includes a discussion guide, Consider and Converse, providing conversational prompts and NiSh’ma, where three commentators examine a line from a talmudic story about the unexpected outcomes of arguing.


Expanding the Table: Chavruta as a Partnership Model
By Aliza Kline and Sarit Wishnevski

From preparing food that others have grown, harvested, and packaged, to sharing the meal with a table full of friends, Shabbat dinner echoes the teaching of Rabbi Nehorai in Pirkei Avot 4: “Do not rely on your own understanding.” In other words, we can’t do it alone.

For OneTable, a Shabbat dinner-centric initiative, we’ve connected the essence of Rabbi Nehorai’s warning with the essence of the chavruta model – learning with and from another. And we’ve elevated that model as we explore what types of partnerships to develop. Like in the beit midrash, study hall, we are seeking a fuller and deeper connection in inter-organizational collaboration. We are hoping our collaborative enterprises lead to new insights and solutions, and higher quality engagement and learning opportunities for participants. With chavruta as a conceptual guide, we hope to avoid transactional relationships and create collaborative partnerships that grow our organization and equip a new generation with the skills and tools necessary to create and share Jewish ritual and community.

It’s not easy to find the right partner – and that’s where chavruta learning can be the most helpful. For example, a vibrant New York-based congregation approached OneTable to create private dinners exclusively for their members. Our platform (to create authentic, sustainable, and valuable Shabbat dinner experiences) could certainly deepen congregational community but our goal is to create open tables, not private dinners. We worked with the congregation to create a dinner series hosted by members but open to anyone, resulting in an increase in participation among members and guests at the table who were new to the community.

We have also experienced chavruta relationships that start strong but encounter pitfalls along the way. Repair the World, an organization that aims to make meaningful service a defining part of American Jewish life, is among our most successful partnerships. Our demographics are clearly complementary, as we both engage Jewish young adults in major urban areas. We co-created a series of justice- and service-themed Shabbat dinners. Repair faculty contributed resources drawing on Jewish and justice texts and OneTable framed them as part of a Shabbat dinner ritual and discussion. Both organizations aimed for participants to feel ownership over the dinner and for Shabbat to serve as a platform for discussing pressing issues while also, critically, serving as a respite, to replenish the energy of young activists.

However, when reviewing our partnership strategy, we learned that while our focus on Shabbat dinner was clear and helpful, it was frustrating to Repair the World that we did not more actively promote volunteering and service work, their primary agenda. The first step toward retooling to nurture a healthier collaboration was to engage our staff in service opportunities, demonstrating our commitment to Repair the World’s mission. Then, using our platform, we streamlined opportunities for hosts to access Repair the World’s resources. This past spring, Repair the World organized service trips to Houston for rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey, and invited us to provide the Shabbat dinner – a moment of rest, replenishment, and awe to frame and elevate days of service. Jointly, we will work with Repair the World fellows to better understand how they seek to build community and how Shabbat can replenish them for the often-exhausting work they do.

Friday night creates opportunities for people to be in Jewish community and inspires peers to take on what for many is a new Jewish practice. The Talmud offers a powerful image for peer learning: “Just as iron sharpens iron, so too do two students sharpen one another.” (Taanit 7a)

The soul of chavruta is rooted in strengthening one another. If we start from a place of learning, our partnerships grow stronger, more collaborative, and come from a place of curiosity and empathy. We turn toward our partners to learn and to co-create resources that speak to different audiences and are applicable to Friday night. As with chavruta, these collaborative partnerships provide added dimension and enrich the experience.

Aliza Kline is the founding executive director of OneTable, founding and former executive director of Mayyim Hayyim, a builder, Jewish ritual sharer, parent, partner, and friend.

Sarit Wishnevski is in charge of creating and nurturing partnerships through her position as the associate director of community partnerships at OneTable. She is a professional Shabbat host and chef.