How a Jewish Learning Program Surprised Me

By Jerry Fensterstock

When our synagogue, Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, NY, announced a learning project with Project Zug, an online-based paired learning platform powered by Mechon Hadar, I really had no idea what to expect. We have had many adult education programs over the years, but nothing that was as self-directed as this looked to be. It was to be spread out over more than ten weeks and required significant amounts of discipline. I wasn’t sure if I was up to making this big a time commitment. And, it was timed to lead up to an evening of study on Shavuot, the nature of which had not been defined. So, I had a little bit of trepidation as I decided to sign up for the class. However, there were a lot of topics to choose from, and many of them were definitely interesting. There was quite a spread from Talmud and Food, to the music of Leonard Cohen, to an introduction to Midrash.

I decided to give “A Food Tour of the Talmud” a go. I have been studying Talmud for several years, and figured that this would be right up my alley. Also, I didn’t specify a preferred partner. I thought it would be interesting to see who the folks running the program would choose to partner with me.

As it turned out, I caught a real break. Eli was someone I had seen at shul, but didn’t really know at all. It turned out that he was a gourmet chef and had limited knowledge of Talmud, while my knowledge of food is pretty much limited to, “Please pass the kugel.” This turned out to be shiduch (match) made in heaven.

One of the great things about the course is that you can pretty much set your schedule any way you want. So, Eli and I met either at one of our homes in the evenings, or after minyan, on Sunday mornings.

We both made sure to read the text that was provided for each session. Also, I found the introductory videos that were available very helpful in pointing out the major themes in the material. The readings are not that long, but having read them ahead of time made our discussions much more productive. In addition, where possible, I tried to track down some of the references in the Talmud that appeared in the reading material. Sometimes this lengthened our discussions, but I think it added a lot of useful context and background for Eli, as this was his first big exposure to Talmud. Often, our sessions went far afield, but that is very reminiscent of the Talmud. One thing often leads you off into the weeds. But sometimes you find gems in those weeds.

For Erev Shavuot, the plan was that each pair who wanted to participate would lead a half hour conversation with members of the synagogue about their topic. Eight of the fifteen pairs participated in the Shavuot program.

I have to say, it was a lot of fun.

After our ten-week course of study, we were now “the experts.” We chose to divide the session into two parts. I gave an overview of the class, and then did a deep dive on two of the topics. The second of which related to the ritual nature of the Passover seder food. Eli, whose family came from Egypt, discussed his Sephardic Passover food traditions, and how different they were from the Ashkenazi experience shared by most of us. (The man has never eaten a brisket or gefilte fish, can you believe it?). We thought this would be an interesting approach, to combine the course material with some personal reminiscences. Apparently, the folks at our review agreed, because they wanted us to keep going. But, cheesecake conquers all.

Looking back, I have to say that I really enjoyed the experience. Although I have been reading Talmud for quite a while, the discussion questions forced me to look at many of the topics in a new light, one that I wouldn’t have discovered on my own. Also, I got a chance to make a new friend. That may be the longest lasting benefit of the course. We have decided to continue our studies together in the coming months. The fact that Eli brings homemade ice cream doesn’t hurt.

Jerry Fensterstock lives in Katonah, NY a suburb of New York City. He retired from IBM in 2005 after a forty year career. He is member of Bet Torah, a Conservative congregation located in Mt Kisco, and is actively involved in organizing adult education courses and the synagogue’s seniors group, “Boomers and Beyond.”