Not quite up to speed on the Torah portion of the week? Having trouble telling a kishke from a knish? And just how many plagues were unleashed on Egypt anyway?
With the Lakewood-based Torah Links, you can get the answers to these questions and more through weekly study sessions designed to increase the layman’s Jewish knowledge. Hebrew school dropouts are not only welcome, they are the target demographic.
Leon Vaks, on left, studies with special Torah Links guest Rabbi David Goldwasser.
"We come across people who have never heard of Moses [and] people who know all about Moses from the Charleton Heston version," said Rabbi Aaron Gruman. "Yeshiva graduates are not our target."
There are more than 1 million Jews in the greater New Jersey and Philadelphia areas, according to Gruman, who calls the majority of these Jews "undereducated Jewishly."
"Torah Links is an organization looking at the unfortunate reality of so many Jews in the country who are disenfranchised from Judaism," said Rabbi Yehuda Farber, director of the program.
Headquartered in Lakewood, the organization employs more than 100 male and female teachers, who hold classes throughout New Jersey and parts of Philadelphia. On average, Torah Links serves roughly 1,000 students each week through group and one-on-one sessions.
The program was begun in 1997 by faculty at the Lakewood Yeshiva, and although former students are in charge, Torah Links is not officially connected with the yeshiva. Organizers originally came together to examine what they perceived as the growing problem of diminished Jewish education, which they held responsible for the shrinking number of Jews in the world.
"We’re contracting because the vast majority of American Jews have simply not received a rudimentary education," Farber said.
For the past five years, teachers from Lakewood have traveled to Shomrei Torah in Fairlawn for Wednesday classes. Synagogue member Sidney Goldschmidt has attended the classes from the beginning.
"I admire their dedication," he said. "When you consider they come from Lakewood and drive three hours round trip every Wednesday whether it’s rain, sleet, snow they’re better than the mailman."
Most Torah Links classes are free. Administrators rely on donations and volunteers to cover the majority of their costs, and keeping their programs free or low-cost helps keep people coming through the door. Former and current students are valuable to Torah Links not just as donors but also as ambassadors of the program.
"Over the years, as more and more people have participated in the programs themselves and become more excited in learning about their heritage, they become our biggest partners," Farber said. "There’s nothing more powerful than when somebody comes to our program, loves it and then hosts [his] own."
Leon Vaks did not consider himself observant for most of his life. The Paramus resident became involved with Torah Links a few years ago when a co-worker spoke highly of it. He decided to try it and has been studying with them ever since. Now a member of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, he has been increasing his own observance level as a result of his learning.
"I do daily prayer, which I’ve never done before," he said. "If you asked me several years back, it would [have been a] very difficult event for me to sit through. But when you do it every day, when you start understanding I’m not claiming I understand 100 percent but when you feel it’s actually helpful to you, your mind no longer feels a resistance to something that could be so valuable."
Resistance is something Torah Links works hard to overcome. Although the teachers behind Torah Links are Orthodox and many of them come from the Lakewood Yeshiva, the Orthodox are not the target audience nor is an Orthodox agenda pushed, according to administrators.
"That is unfortunately one of the barriers we have to overcome. As people are less in contact with Judaism and less knowledgeable, there is certainly a divide and many don’t understand what a Jew who studies the Torah and might be religious is all about. More times than not, we can get over that barrier by doing things in a non-threatening way and making it fun," Farber said.
Most of the group’s programs start off in a library or other public setting, instead of a synagogue. This is one of the ways Farber keeps the group non-threatening and pulls in people who would not feel comfortable in a synagogue setting.
"The reality is there’s something out there for everybody: how to be a better spouse, a better parent, relate to co-workers whatever it might be that tickles somebody’s fancy," Farber said.