Sweet Taste of Torah
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Sweet Taste of Torah

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Last year, Rabbi Rob Scheinberg talked about the many meanings of Hatikvah. Courtesy of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis

Shlomo Carlebach’s favorite time was dusk, reports Rabbi Gerald Friedman.

“It’s the last summoning of all the little vapors of Shabbes, all of them finally coming home to rest in this very intense, strange, and liminal time,” Friedman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Sholom of Pascack Valley in Park Ridge, said.

If you loved Carlebach, the charismatic and influential rabbi whose music is played so frequently in so many places that it often seems organic rather than composed, or if you are intrigued by the idea that Shabbat changes, strengthens, and sweetens as it draws toward its end every week, or if you love Friedman’s teaching style, full of the insight gained by his chasidic background, infused by his warmth, then you might want to consider taking his course, “Shlomo Carlebach’s Favorite Niggun,” at the Sweet Taste of Torah, set for February 2 at Temple Emeth in Teaneck.

Perhaps your musical tastes run more to Stephen Sondheim. You’re in luck! David Bockman, rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes, is a serious Sondheim savant. He will be teaching “Disappearing Mountain: A Sondheim Sinai.”

Both courses, along with 18 others, make up the Sweet Taste of Torah, a program spearheaded by the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, with the cooperation of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and many congregations that fall within the federation’s catchment area. The program, running for its fourth year, begins with Havdallah at 6:50 and then offers participants 10 course selections for each of two sessions. Food and the chance for everyone to talk to each other end the evening.

It generally draws between 200 and 300 people who come from about 20 communities.

Sweet Taste of Torah is similar to other programs in other places. They’re often called Torahthons, and the federation offered an earlier version a decade or so ago, but for the past four years it has been put together by a group of NJBJ rabbis. Four rabbis are the core of that group – Friedman, Bockman, Rabbi Leana Moritt of Jewish Thresholds, and Rabbi Benjamin Shull of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, who also is president of the NJBJ. The four are the steadiest participants in a group that meets every Friday to study.

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“We learned that when people study together on a regular basis, they can do other things together,” Shull said. In this case, what they did was a significant job of organizing; they hired a coordinator, raised funds, attracted teachers, found synagogues that would let them use the facilities, gathered students, and began.

“The program is an evening of studying Torah -Torah in the broadest sense,” Shull said. Broadly defined, Torah encompasses all Jewish wisdom and learning, starting with the literal Torah – the five book of Moses.

Most Torahthon programs tend to hire well-known scholars and teachers, who give keynote talks. The Sweet Taste of Torah takes another tack. There is no out-of-town headliner. All the classes are taught and the panels peopled by local rabbis.

This benefits both the rabbis and the other participants.

“There is tremendous talent in our community,” Shull said. “We are energized by each other, when we feel that we’re part of a larger whole.” In fact, because each rabbi teaches only once, each is free to go to another course in the other session as a student, and many take advantage of that opportunity.

“Rabbis tend to be isolated in their own congregations, and this tends to break that down, so it’s sort of for our health too,” Shull said. “And people like hearing other people’s rabbis.” To some extent, that is because “no man is a prophet in his own city,” he said, but it’s also simply because it is good to hear fresh voices.

The program eases the burden of adult education, which traditionally has problems attracting enough students to make a range of courses viable. “If on average we each bring 10 to 12 students to Sweet Taste of Torah, we have a critical mass,” Shull said.

One challenge to the planners is finding a location central enough to draw people from across the area. This is the second year the program has been held in Teaneck; in other years it’s been in Fair Lawn and Ridgewood.

“We would really like to be able to broaden and deepen the program, and to do that we’d have to institutionalize it,” he said. “That’s something we have to work on.”

This year, the evening’s theme is the encounter on Mount Sinai, no matter how you define that encounter, understand the parties to it, or situate it in time or space. Most, although not all of the sessions, will approach the theme in some way, direct or not.

Shull will lead a panel discussion called “Is Torah from Sinai or from Zion? diaspora Versus Israel as Spiritual Center.”

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Moritt remembers the buzz the program generates. “When we come together as a community there is a real energy. When we first started it, we had no idea how many people would come, but so many did, and it just kept growing.

“There was a real excitement around the study; between sessions people would gather and compare notes. There was a richness and diversity of opinions and of topics, and people were studying with people they don’t usually mix with.”

She was particularly struck by the participants. “We know that most people heard about it through their synagogues, but at least in the group I taught there were people who didn’t have a regular synagogue. This gave them an opportunity to sample what’s going on – to get their feet wet – to get a taste of Torah!”

She has taught a course that she’s called “Jewish Bedtime Stories and Rituals.” “One of the things I looked at is the Bedtime Sh’ma,” she said. “It’s been excised from all the liberal siddurim. You see it only in Orthodox shuls. It’s a daily teshuva practice, where you let go of the day, emptying yourself of the things that might plague you at night, so you wake up refreshed and renewed.

“My guess is that liberal shuls dropped it because they’re not comfortable with the angel talk,” she said. “You don’t usually hear it from non-Orthodox rabbis. But she thinks the message is profound, so her students heard it from her. “It’s a way to shake things up,” she said.

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Friedman, who will teach about Carlebach’s favorite niggun, said, “I have a love affair with seuda shlishit” – the third meal of Shabbat, the low-key one that you eat once you’ve stuffed yourself with food all day, the one that ushers out Shabbat and tells you that the week and the real world are about to start again very soon.

“I think he said he understood it’s kind of a great revelation,” Friedman said. He had known Carlebach, and his course is based on a conversation the two shared. “I think he saw it, and dusk on Saturday night, as a time for both finding your own soul and for activating it with others. You can locate your Jewish self and your Jewish past, so it won’t be so distant from you.

“We Jews work on Shabbes. It’s not the work of work, but there’s still work. God worked too on Shabbat, not on new stuff but finishing old stuff.” The end of Shabbat, he said, is when “God could finally kick back and say that his work really is something else.

“It’s not a time to wrestle with God, or with yourself. It’s a time for contacting the self and saying ‘Umm, you did good.’

“I see Sweet Taste of Torah as an integration of two things,” Friedman continued. “The individual and the community. At Sinai, we stood in our individuality, with one heart. It was all individual people in the context of the tzibbur – the community.”

And to move from the sublime to the mundane – from Sinai to Teaneck – “We get the community feeling most strongly when the class is over and we spill out into the halls,” he said.

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Bockman will teach about Sinai as he teaches about Sondheim.

“‘The Pacific Overtures’ is about the opening up of Japan to the world,” he said. “The pivotal moment in the play is when the foreigners are about to set foot in Japan. They make a treaty with the Japanese, but the Japanese have built a special treaty house on the beach, and put mats on the beach leading up to it.

“When the foreigners left after concluding the treaty the house was dismantled and the mats were taken up. The Japanese were able to tell themselves that the foreigners had never even set foot on Japanese soil.

“I noticed that Mount Sinai is the one meeting place between God and human beings, but even during that meeting the mountain is completely covered with clouds and fog.” His course is built on that perception.

Bockman is in charge of finding rabbis and helping them decide what to teach.

“This shows that there are at least 22 rabbis in our communities who really care about teaching – who really love it – and that there are hundreds of people who want to come out. There is a kind of electricity there. It fits in with the theme of Sinai. All the people were all together. That doesn’t happen all the time.”

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