Turning to the Old to Find Something New: Introducing Chavrutah Learning in the Synagogue

By Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

When we talk about education in our congregations and synagogues, we often look at what is cutting edge, new, and different. Our institutions emphasize that the future of education must involve smart boards, WiFi, and swiping screens. I agree that we must offer innovative entry points for learning. Still, we cannot forget the most important aspect of learning: our peers.

Paired study, or chavrutah learning, has been a part of traditional rabbinic text study for centuries. This form of paired learning acknowledges that there is not distinct roles of student and teacher. Rather, each partner in the pair teaches one another, and learns from one another. Together, they may analyze texts, question interpretations or arguments, and suggest different conclusions. Learning with – and from – someone else allows us to open up our minds to see something in a way that we previously were not able. We are taught In Pirkei Avot 1:6: Find for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend. Through chavrutah study, we come to understand and appreciate that our closest friends are our greatest teachers.

The beauty of chavrutah study is that the emphasis is on the act of learning, not on the outcome. There is no single correct interpretation or understanding of the text. After all, we learn in Midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah) that the Torah has seventy faces, that the rich text of Jewish tradition can be interpreted in an infinite amount of ways. Chavrutah learning empowers each individual to come to his or her own conclusion and not worry about what is correct or incorrect.

At the beginning of 2016, Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey, where I proudly serve as rabbi, launched our Beth El Beit Midrash program. The goal of our community’s strategic planning process was to offer different ways to learn and to take learning outside the synagogue building at times that are most convenient for each individual. Our goal was to offer chavrutah learning with congregants learning what they wanted, when they wanted, where they wanted. With the help of Project Zug, a program of Mechon Hadar and Panim: The Association for Jewish Renewal Organizations in Israel, we were able to do exactly that.

Project Zug offers over fifteen different topics for pairs to learn together. One congregant mentioned that, because of the variety of course offerings, she was able to choose what she wanted to learn, instead of just learning whatever was being offered. These courses consist of videos, lesson plans, text source sheets, and probing questions that are sent to learning pairs through email. Each pair determines for themselves when to learn and where to learn. There is no burden of a set date and time. The flexibility of timing, as well as learning options, and the empowering nature of friends and loved ones learning together and teaching each other has made our Beth El Beit Midrash a success.

We have over sixty members of the community, from those in their 20’s to those in their 70’s, committed to weekly text learning over a three month period. At the conclusion of the three months, we will have a siyyum where each pair will have the opportunity to teach others what they have learned. We have spouses, parents and children, friends, and new acquaintances all learning in pairs. Some are new to Jewish learning and others have strong text skills and backgrounds. The diversity of these learners only adds to what they are able to teach each other, and emphasizes the seventy faces of the Torah.

Project Zug is part of a much needed educational revolution in the American Jewish community, in which we return to our roots to make text learning more accessible. Some innovative Jewish communities are already emphasizing chavrutah learning. MakomDC of Adas Israel Congregation has regular chavrutah learning in the synagogue’s Biran Beit Midrash, with each month focusing on a different theme, studying texts that encourage conversation, debate, and dialogue about that monthly theme. Valley Beit Midrash in the Greater Phoenix area is a collaborative effort by area congregations, the local Federation, and the JCC, to bring pluralistic Jewish text learning and paired study to the larger Jewish community. Thanks to Project Zug and our strategic plan, Congregation Beth El’s Beit Midrash is proud to offer deep and meaningful chavrutah learning as well.

The Beth El Beit Midrash is intellectually stimulating; it is also a social experience. Some learn over a beer, a cup of coffee, or a meal. Most importantly though, it is a sacred experience. We tend to only think about what is new and what is next. Looking backwards at the most commonly practiced learning style of the rabbinic tradition has allowed us to look forward as we continue to build a community of learners.

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky is rabbi and spiritual leader at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, NJ. For more information about the Beth El Beit Midrash and the work they are doing with Project Zug, you can contact him here.