Lies Your Colleagues Told You about the Beit Midrash

Hillel Internationals Ezra Fellowship and our work with Mechon Hadar.

havrutaBy Rabbi Jason Rubenstein

I’m here today – teaching at Hadar, writing in eJP – because the Hillel I went to didn’t draw lines between engagement and Jewish learning. Friendships were forged through existential conversations about Rabbi Akiva. Couples met and fell in love planning Shabbat services. Online political discussions cited the messages of the Jewish calendar and quotes from the Talmud. In the first years of the last decade, Harvard Hillel’s cultural DNA was as a beit midrash – a place of inquiry and exploration with the tools of the Jewish tradition and the companionship of my peers.

Over the past two years, Hillel International has been training cohorts of Ezra fellows – engagement professionals who can make content relatable and make relationships contentful, providing the educational experience that was so formative to me and my closest friends to another generation of Jewish college students. Hadar has provided the Jewish textual heart of the program, immersing the Ezra fellows in beit midrash experiences that they then share with their students back on campus.

You might be thinking, “A beit midrash is a place for studying Judaism, which is only interesting to insiders. A beit midrash can’t engage people.” Each part of that sentence is nearly the opposite of the truth. Let me elucidate just four reasons why:

  1. A beit midrash isn’t a place. A beit midrash can pop up in a living room for an hour, a lounge for an evening, or like Hadar’s in the rented sanctuary of a Reconstructionist synagogue. A beit midrash is a programming modality. And it’s a great programming modality. The heart of the beit midrash is havruta, when two people build a relationship through the shared project of making a text come alive. Given the right framing, a havruta raises personal questions, with participants digging deep to resonate with ideas. At the end of an hour, participants know their havruta-partner more intimately than someone they met at a standard social event.
  2. A beit midrash isn’t for studying Judaism. A beit midrash is for figuring out how to be a person and a Jew, with the help of other people and the Jewish tradition. As one Ezra participant put it, “there are the experiences where you really resonate with the text, you are able to derive a lot of meaning from what is being said and apply it to many aspects of your and your student’s lives.” When a beit midrash is working, it’s an experience of study that is equal parts intellectually challenging, personally meaningful, and relationship-building.
  3. A beit midrash isn’t only for insiders. A beit midrash is for anyone who enjoys other people, enjoys thinking hard, and is open to multiple perspectives. They don’t even have to be Jewish. Think of a mash-up between a party and a library, or a salon and a bagel brunch. A thriving beit midrash doesn’t just tolerate those often thought of as “outsiders,” it needs them and their ideas.
  4. A beit midrash engages people quickly and authentically. Ezra fellows talk again and again about how their beit midrash experience changes the way they do engagement work. Working together to figure something out creates relationships that are about something, that have a shared referent, with authenticity, purpose, and depth.

This theory and practice of a beit midrash has major implications: namely, that beit midrash should be a mode of programming employed by many, many Jewish organizations. What does it take to run a beit midrash? About 10 square ft per participant, 10 cents of xeroxes per participant, and a facilitator who can teach text and can teach people. That’s a lot of human capital – and it’s what the Ezra Fellowship is creating.

Judaism has a lot of competition for the time, resources, and energy of Americans – perhaps nowhere more so than on college campuses. To succeed we need to identify our main value-add, something that students won’t find elsewhere. Campuses are home to dozens of student groups with strong communities, and close relationships are just next door. Even in this rich context, the beit midrash’s contribution is unique: where else can students be part of a community of inquiry that’s a real community? Where can they apply the skills they’re learning in reading texts to the questions that keep them up at night, with friends who care not just about the ideas but about them as people? Only in Jewish spaces – or, more precisely, only in a beit midrash. When we think about priming the pipeline of Jewish leadership, we should make projects like the Ezra fellowship our paradigm. Its participants – and the students they reach – will be writing the articles you’ll be reading in 15 years.

The Ezra Fellowship is supported in part by the Maimonides Fund.

Rabbi Jason Rubenstein is Dean of Students at Yeshivat Hadar, where he also teaches Talmud and Jewish thought. Jason is a recipient of the 2015 Pomegranate Prize for Jewish Education; browse his podcasts and lectures here.