For Josh Wertentheil, 37, the weekly class is like no other study he found after graduating from yeshiva.
“It’s much more dynamic,” Mr. Wertentheil said. “It’s much more real.”
For one thing, unlike most Torah study classes, this one includes exams at the end of the semester.
Good news: Mr. Wertentheil passed.
“It’s the first exam I took in about 20 years,” he said. “I was elated to hear I had passed. My family and I were so relieved. The kids had been watching me study for weeks.
Mr. Wertentheil, who grew up in Englewood, lives in Wesley Hills, near Monsey. He was one of more than 1,200 people studying in 54 synagogues worldwide, in a curriculum created by the Orthodox Union. The OU calls it the Semichat Chaver program. (Semicha is ordination, and chaver, the Hebrew word for comrade, is a term the Talmud uses for non-rabbis who are knowledgeable in halacha; it is the Hebrew word for comrade.) It has that name because although the program does not end in ordination, the OU does award its students with diplomas if they pass the test offered at the end of every semester-long unit. Mr. Wertentheil studies in a class led by Rabbi Daniel Coren, the assistant rabbi at the Beis Medrash Ohr Chaim Community Learning Center in Monsey. “When we were in the shul, between 50 and 75 people were coming in every week,” Mr. Wertentheil said; those numbers have been lower since the class migrated to Zoom in March.
Unlike most adult Jewish learning in synagogues, Semichat Chaver program has a clear curriculum — it focuses on practical halacha.
In Bergen County, the Young Israel of Fair Lawn and Congregation Ohr Saadya in Teaneck offer the Semichat Chaver program. (Plans to add 25 more locations — including at synagogues in Teaneck and New City — were placed on hold because of the pandemic.)
Rabbi Elyada Goldwicht runs the program from Jerusalem. The Goldwicht family is familiar in modern Orthodox circles; his father, Rabbi Meir Goldwicht, teaches Talmud at Yeshiva University and is a frequent lecturer in Teaneck, where Meir Goldwicht’s in-laws live. Elyada Goldwicht’s great uncle, Rabbi Chaim Goldwicht, was the founder of the first hesder yeshiva, Yeshiva Kerem B’Yavneh.
“I felt there was a need for education for people who have left the yeshiva and are now working and want to know practical halacha,” Rabbi Goldwicht said. They want answers to such questions as how to keep a kitchen kosher and how to keep Shabbos in the right way.
But with that content to be addressed, how to make a successful adult educational program?
“People want structure,” he said. “They want a beginning and an end. People want to feel they’ve accomplished something.” That is one of three factors in the success of the Daf Yomi program launched by Agudath Israel, a competing Orthodox group, he added.
Another key factor: “There’s a beginning and an end.”
Finally, “There are points of entry. Let’s say I learned the tractate Baba Kama in yeshiva — it lets me jump in” when the Daf Yomi program reaches that tractate.”
But Daf Yomi has disadvantages too, he said.
“Retention is close to zero. Most people don’t remember.
“Second, none of the learning is brought into the house. No one is coming to the Shabbos table and saying, ‘Let me tell you about an ox that gored a donkey.’”
“I said ‘Let’s take the advantages of the Daf Yomi without the negatives.
“There’s beginning and an end,” with each six-month semester marked by an exam. And for those who pass, a certificate signed by three top-tier Orthodox rabbis: Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University and the OU’s halachic advisor; Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the former Sephardi chief rabbi; and Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, who heads Jerusalem’s religious court and is famous for offering rabbinical degrees.
That’s in contrast to Daf Yomi, which reserves its big celebrations for a once-every-seven-years arena celebration.
And where the curriculum of Daf Yomi is simply the classic talmudic text, the Semichat Chaver program sends the rabbis leading each local class sheets that include halachic sources, in both English and Hebrew, along with discussion questions.
And then, “at the end of each class the participants get mailed a list of questions and answers. It tells them, you can now be the teacher in your house. Run a class at your Shabbos table. The feedback we’ve gotten has been through the roof. People say their whole Shabbos table has been transformed,” Rabbi Goldwicht said.
Beyond the excitement, the program has the clear goal of teaching “the basic halachos every Jew encounters. We started with laws of milk and meat. Then did how to kasher utensils. Now we’re in the middle of the laws of Shabbos. The goal is to also do the laws of shul, the laws of blessings, and the laws of family purity. The everyday halachos people want to know.”
Rabbi Goldwicht outlines each lesson.
“Each group starts with 10 minutes of philosophical questions to let the people in. When we were learning hilchot Shabbat, each week there would be a different reason why we should keep Shabbos. This also brings God back into the learning. It shouldn’t just be like a course in college. How is this learning making you a better person, how is it improving your relationships with other people?
“These first 10 minutes we let them land. The second 10 we wake them up. The rabbi asks the participants a list of cutting-edge questions. He says, ‘I’m not going to give you the answers.’ The point of this is to fight. Torah should be exciting. People should generally have a good time when they learn.
“The third section we give out source sheets, which are basically the before and after of the Shulchan Aruch.
“You see the transmission of our tradition from Moshe Rabeinu all the way to where you’re sitting. Throughout the class the questions we started with are answered.”
Every two or three weeks, Rabbi Goldwicht will throw a video into the mix.
“It brings halacha alive,” he said. “When we’re learning about the question of using a dishwasher for milk and meat dishes, we have a video from the inside of dishwasher. Some of the laws depend on whether the dishwasher starts a cycle with water or soap” — a detail visible on the video. For the class about delineating when Shabbat begins and ends, “we show a whole video on twilight.”
There are no prerequisites.
There are no fees — though at some point the OU would like to get participating synagogues to pay some of the expenses.
And at this point, there are no women.
“We’re working on a women’s program,” Rabbi Goldwicht said. “That got delayed a little bit. We definitely want an open track for women.”
Rabbi Daniel Feldman has been leading the class for Teaneck’s Ohr Saadya congregation for two semesters.
“We started before last summer,” he said. “We have about 40 odd people on the WhatsApp group. We met Tuesday nights and we still meet through Zoom.”
He said the program “is fantastic. It clearly hit a chord with many people here and the world over. It allows them to learn material that’s relevant to their lives in depth and with detail, and also with a great degree of personal involvement and engagement.”
At the Young Israel of Fair Lawn, Rabbi Eli Belizon schedules the class for 7:15 a.m. Sunday mornings. Back when it met in real space, “we had a minyan beforehand, and then we learned,” he said.
“There’s a constant energy and excitement” to the studies, he continued. “You want to make sure you’re retaining it. It brings people back to school days, where you had to make sure you were accomplishing and retaining and going to get grades. The fact it really had applications to each and every one of our lives made it exciting and fun and relevant.”
He said about 30 or 35 people have been in the class, with more joining in the new semester that just started.
“It was great camaraderie,” he said.
The course is eye-opening for the participants, he continued. “Sometimes people think certain areas of learning and understanding might just be for the rabbis. It’s not true. It really energizes people.
“It creates such a sense of excitement, such a sense of relevance. You get pulled in and want to be part of it.”