Creating a learning community

Creating a learning community

A group of women (and a little girl) learn together at the beit midrash at Beth Aaron. Clockwise, starting at the head of the table, they are Rachel Friedman, Rachelle Mandelbaum, Rachel Brenner, Tamar Schiowitz, Shira Schiowitz, and Cyla Steinmetz. larry yudelson

Learning speaks to some people’s souls.

Studying Jewish texts, immersing in them, glorying in them, considering the words themselves and the relationship of the words to each other and to the message they spell out, feeling the link of generations, reaching back longer than memory – that is a deep and true passion.

There are many ways to nourish that passion, both in northern New Jersey and across the bridge in New York, but very soon there will be a new one.

Lamdeinu, a Teaneck-based learning center open to everyone, will open this week with three courses; a fuller program of study will begin in the fall.

Rachel Friedman of Teaneck, Lamdeinu’s creator, is a passionate believer in the importance of text study, both for its own sake and for its role in building community. Her goal is to build a place where such study will occur.

“This has always been my dream,” she said.

Ms. Friedman was born in Brooklyn; her father, Rabbi Baruch Meir Rabinowitz, was a pulpit rabbi from a chasidic dynasty, one of the first to transplant itself to the United States before the Shoah. Her mother, Tova Brandwein Rabinowitz, who was born in Palestine, “was very wise,” Ms. Friedman said. She grew up, the youngest of five children, in a family “that was very involved in education. Many of my family are professors, and also we all are concerned about the community and the world. We all were brought up to make contributions toward making the world a better place.”

After eight years on Columbia University’s campus – four as an undergraduate at Barnard, one at its school for public affairs, and three at law school – Ms. Friedman became an attorney, working on trusts and estates for big and medium-size law firms. She married Allen Friedman, whom she met at law school, and the family moved to Teaneck about 25 years ago. “But after the second of my third children was born, I felt the pull to go back to studying Torah,” she said.

She began to take classes at the Drisha Institute – a Manhattan-based school that teaches Jewish texts at a high level, particularly to women – and then at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. At first she merely audited, but soon she was invited to work toward a degree there.

Soon, it became clear to her that her instincts, her training, and her interests were pointing her away from law, toward teaching Jewish texts. Much as she is uncomfortable with the bluntness of the word, she seemed to have a calling.

“I don’t want to be maudlin, but there is a point in your life when you say, ‘When I am 80, or 100, and I look back at my life, what will my contribution have been?'” she said. “Family is extremely important, of course, and so is community, but I felt that I had a certain passion for Torah study, and specifically for the study of the Bible; that I had something to give that was perhaps different from what I was doing in the practice of law.”

Ms. Friedman not only loves to learn, she also loves to teach. She began to teach at Drisha. “I had very young children then, and I had a number of Teaneck friends who also had very young children, and we went in together,” she said. “It was fabulous.

“I remember the first class I taught. I had a carpool of women who studied with me – lawyers, teachers, a scientist. I met fabulously interesting people.”

That first semester at Drisha grew into 17 years there; Ms. Friedman finished her career at Drisha this month as associate dean and chair of Tanach. She left Drisha to found Lamdeinu, but she talks about Drisha with great love.

Lamdeinu’s three summer courses say a great deal about the way Ms. Friedman envisions the learning center. One, for women only, will be an advanced Talmud class; the students, many of them teachers during the year, are highly skilled. The other two will be in the parashat hashavuah – the weekly Torah reading – and haftarot – the readings from the Prophets that accompany each week’s Torah reading. Those, for men and women, require less background knowledge.

“I have the impression that there was a strong interest in having a program for advanced studies in the summer,” Ms. Friedman said. “This is an important time for Jewish education. And teachers in any system – public, private, day schools – are off in the summer. I have always loved teaching in the summer, because there are always students who have just a great passion for learning. I thought it would serve the community well to start then.”

As much as she is drawn toward Jewish texts in general, Ms. Friedman finds that the Tanach exerts the strongest pull on her. “The tapestry of the narrative and the law inform each other,” she said. “The study of the Bible is very accessible to everyone. It is amazing to me that you can read about the experiences of characters in the Bible; you can learn from their heroism and also from their growth, and it is all relevant.”

She also plans on including courses in Talmud, Jewish philosophy, midrash, and other topics, depending on interest. “It is important to me to have not just Torah learning but be meaningful and relevant to the students in their daily lives,” she said. “We hope to have classes that have synergy with community service – with chesed. The relationship between study and service is compelling.”

Although some of Lamdeinu’s classes will be lectures, many will involve chevruta study, where all the students will prepare the same texts, and pairs will decode them together. That model of study is empowering for students, Ms. Friedman said; it allows them to develop deep relationships with people they otherwise might not ever have met, and it allows her as the teacher to develop strong bonds to all of them. That model also allows students to develop a network that both celebrates and grieves together.

“Part of Torah study is being part of a makom Torah,” she said. “That is what I want to create. I don’t know if those words are translatable – often the words that describe the essence of a culture are not translatable.” The literal meaning is “place of learning,” she said, “but that doesn’t capture it. It’s a place where people engage, think, learn – and where the learning becomes something that infuses their daily lives.

“I have found that over the years, often people have many challenges in their lives. The act of learning Torah, where you are focused on learning with other people, can be a great source of comfort and support.”

Lamdeinu will meet in Congregation Beth Aaron, in a newly renovated space that Ms. Friedman describes as truly beautiful. It also is accessible to people with disabilities – something that was a prerequisite for her. She has had a great deal of support in starting the program, and she has been astonished by the outpouring of enthusiasm that has greeted her. Ask her about funding, though, and she pauses. She thought it was more important to start as soon as possible than to spend a great deal of time fund-raising, she said. “We will have funders. I look forward to the support of the community, and I am confident that we will get it.”

Faculty members this summer include Rabbi David Nachbar, who will teach the advanced Talmud class, and Rabbi Hayyim Angel, who will teach the course on haftarot. Ms. Friedman will teach the weekly Torah class herself.

In the fall, Shira Schiowitz, also of Teaneck, will become Lamdeinu’s associate dean. (Ms. Friedman is the dean.) Ms. Schiowitz, who has chaired the Tanach department at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck and now mentors students there, will teach Bible at Lamdeinu. Like Ms. Friedman, she also will teach whatever is necessary. Because the school will be flexible rather than rigid, both administrators must be able to bend with the needs they encounter.

“We want to build a learning community where all different kinds of people can come to the table together, and be inspired by the learning and enrich their Jewish lives through learning,” Ms. Schiowitz said. “Learning is a very inclusive tool. A lot of different people can join the conversation.

“Sometimes, in the busyness of our lives, we do not get the chance to take a step back and connect with the text.

“We are a community grassroots effort. We will try to figure out the community’s needs. Some of them we know, some will emerge. I’m sure we will make mistakes. We’ll adjust.”

Who: Lamdeinu – A new center for Jewish learning in Teaneck

What: Opens with three courses

When: Beginning June 30

Where: Congregation Beth Aaron, 950 Queen Anne Road, Teaneck

How: For information, email or go

read more: