By Rabba Sara Hurwitz
In 1945, Jews in a displaced persons camp in Germany made a peculiar request of the Joint Distribution Committee staff providing relief: could they get Talmuds for the survivors to study? Of all the things refugees could request – food, medicine, money – Talmuds would not seem to be high on the list. And yet the JDC saw the need to study Torah not as an intellectual endeavor, but as an essential investment in the cultural vitality, the spiritual strength of the displaced people. In 1946, the JDC in partnership with the US Army printed over 1,000 new Talmuds, known as the “Survivor’s Talmud,” to allow Torah study to continue.
While we are not emerging from a world war, we all feel like displaced persons. Some because of illness or loss, others from sheer loneliness or unemployment. Covid-19 has caused massive disruption across industries and has catalyzed a deep economic crisis. The American unemployment rate has spiked to a whopping 14.7% in April. Jewish professionals and educators are not immune to the economic impact of the coronavirus. Layoffs by Jewish institutions have been widely reported. Before the global pandemic the Jewish community was flourishing, bursting with bold new ideas, new programs and professionals who were mission driven and loyal to the organizations in which they worked. Now, as a result of layoffs, we are beginning to see a major talent drain in our community.
With so many employees furloughed or fired, how will our sector continue to flourish?
At first glance, this may seem like the wrong question. In order to maintain stability, the Jewish community must scale back. In a sense, we are placing a tourniquet on a gaping hole, abruptly interrupting growth for the sake of the greater good. Our communal resources need to be preserved so that the core functions of our community can survive. However, maintaining a crisis mentality is shortsighted; it does not take into account the future needs of the community. Once the tourniquet is removed, and the bleeding has stopped, we will be left with a mere shadow of the innovative and creative programming we had come to know. At the center of a return to a time of tremendous flourishing is the maintaining and supporting of the professionals who keep all our wheels turning. This is a time to invest in our sector by continuing to invest in its employees.
So what does this have to with printing Talmuds in 1945? The way we keep professionals loyal to the vision of a thriving and dynamic community, one with new and dynamic ideas is through the project of Torah study. Torah study is the path towards rebuilding and restoring our spiritual selves.
Here’s one such opportunity: Maharat and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah have created Mind the Gap, a Mini-Sabbatical to expose participants to Jewish ideas and values while also providing them with resume-building experience. Mind the Gap is generously sponsored by the Aviv Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and the Maimonides Fund through the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund.
Although YCT and Maharat are known for training and ordaining Orthodox male and female rabbinic leaders, we are well positioned to offer Torah to lay professionals. With close to 200 men and women out in the field, we have our fingers on the pulse of the needs of people on the ground. We have a sense of the gap that Jewish professionals may have in their educational experience. In partnership with Hillel’s Office of Innovation, we will offer text-based classes in Jewish values, studying how the Torah can help us better understand issues such as race and discrimination in America and the refugee crises. We will offer classes in group facilitation and leadership development as well as unique opportunities to network with rabbis and leaders that may open up future professional opportunities.
There was a time that I did not realize the impact that Torah study would have on my own life. It took me until my senior year in college to realize that my destiny was not medicine. In between anatomy classes, I was flying to college campuses teaching texts to other students on Judaism’s take on intermarriage, spirituality or Jewish ritual. I loved it, but my Jewish fluency was limited. When I entered a Beit Midrash, my life journey as a communal leader and teacher was cemented. It wasn’t necessarily a specific page of Talmud or topic in Jewish law that awakened my commitment to serve the community, but the excitement of being part of the 2000+ year-old Jewish literacy project, where I would be positioning myself to use the language of Torah as a commentary on our modern world.
One of the lessons of JDC Talmud is that in the wake of displacement, we can invest in the study of Torah for the good of individuals, who gain purpose and meaning, and for the good of the community which will be enriched by the life-enhanced insights of the learners. I predict that once again Torah study will become a stabilizing force and a source of creative regeneration, helping our Jewish community on the long hard road towards rebuilding.
Rabba Sara Hurwitz is the President and co-founder of Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women. She is also a member of the rabbinic team at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, The Bayit.