When they first started school — in Europe, a very long time ago, before the world changed — little boys were encouraged to lick honey off the Hebrew letters they soon would be learning.
That was the sweet taste of Torah that the North Jersey Board of Rabbis considered — honey-sweet, honey-pure, and inextricably connected to text — as it put together Sweet Tastes of Torah, the seven-year-old program that draws Jews from across the area — and from across the Jewish spectrum — for a night of learning and celebrating together, and for the bonding across borders that accompanies it.
Beginning with Havdalah, the evening includes 20 rabbis, representing 20 Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist communities, and two hour-long learning sessions. It concludes with dessert, dancing, and, new this year, a closing ceremony. “That’s because people didn’t always stay for the refreshments and the shmoozing, but that’s a big part of the community-building,” Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, who also is the president of the board of rabbis, said.
“What I love about it is the fact that once a year, the community comes together to learn,” Rabbi Randall Mark of Shomrei Torah: The Wayne Conservative Congregation, added. He’s not talking only about students. “It is the only forum where you can get a dozen different rabbis teaching about the same theme but doing their own thing. And what’s fun for me as a rabbi is that every year, during the sessions when I am not teaching, I get a chance to learn with different colleagues. It’s always interesting to see what they do.”
What do they do?
Each year, the committee overseeing the evening for the board of rabbis comes up with a theme. Usually it has something to do with the parashat hashavuah — the weekly Torah portion. This year, though, the focus will be on sacred relationships, defined in any way that the participating rabbis choose to define it.
Rabbi David Bockman of Teaneck, who heads Temple Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes, has taken on the job of organizing the evening, as he has for many years. “What I do is noodge the rabbis to agree to teaching, and then I give them ideas,” he said. “As a committee, we come up with the theme, and then I interpret the theme to the rabbis, and give them some direction.”
As in most years, some of the sessions are what Rabbi Bockman calls “bread and butter.” They hew closely to the theme, need no explanation, and explore the real questions, dilemmas, and emotions that are connected to it. For example, he said, this year, Sha’ar Communities’ Rabbi Adina Lewittes will teach “Sibling Relationships as Seen Through the Lens of Genesis”; Rabbi David Klatzker of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake will explore “Honoring Father and Mother: The Hardest Mitzvah?”; Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer will consider “What the Bible Teaches Us About Family Values,” and Rabbi David J. Fine of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood will examine “A Metaphorical Relationship? The Marriage Between God and the Jewish People.”
(Note that bread and butter is not necessarily Wonder Bread and butter in tiny little plastic tubs. It can be solid, chewy, multigrain bread and slabs of home-churned goodness.)
Other sessions offer topics less straightforwardly connected to the theme. Rabbi Bockman will teach Israeli dance during one of the sessions; Rabbi Fred Elias of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County will look at baseball’s spring training, considering it through a Jewish prism (any baseball fan will understand intuitively the connection between fandom and faith), and Rabbi Gerald Friedman, the beloved rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Sholom of Pascack Valley in Park Ridge, will teach about his beloved Shlomo Carlebach, as he does most years.
Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is a chaplain at Valley Hospital, a congregant at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, where this year’s Sweet Tastes will be held, and a member of the rabbinical committee that arranges it. “This year, the theme is very special, and each one of us who will be teaching will teach something from their heart,” Rabbi Zelazo said.
“I am teaching ‘What More Can I Do To Be Loved By You?’” she continued. “It will be exploring human relationships, and how people deal with envy, disappointment, rejection. It has to do with human emotions. The therapeutic part of my workshop will be based on the Torah portion called Vayetze, about Rachel, Leah, and Jacob, and we will look at the dynamics that happen in this family. One feels unloved. One feels loved, but then the one who feels loved can’t have a baby. We will dissect the story piece by piece, and see how it can guide us to understand something about ourselves.
“It’s about dealing with the scars of the past, and how to make them sacred to ourselves. It is about how we can perhaps mend hurt in certain ways, and when we mend and fix and repair we heal, and when we heal, the sacred part comes across as holy, important, untouched, and respected.
“I wish I had more than an hour!” she said ruefully. (If there is ever one refrain sung by just about anyone who teaches Jewish adult education, or who takes classes, it’s “I need more time!” )
Many people go to Sweet Tastes of Torah year after year, loving the community feeling and learning new things each time. “One of the wonderful things about it is that we get to study with all these different rabbis,” Linda Poskanzer of Hackensack, chair of Temple Emeth’s adult ed committee, said. “I’ve lived in Bergen county for 65 years, and I know a lot of people who are not Temple Emeth members. It’s good to run into them there.
“It gets better every year,” she continued. “It’s also a good introduction for people who haven’t done any studying, who have come for the first time because their rabbi or someone else convinced them to.
“And it’s wonderful that Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis all cooperate, and bring great stuff to us.”
Rachel Eastman of Dumont, an active Temple Emeth member, has gone to most of the Sweet Tastes. “There are always topics that speak to me,” she said. “And I like seeing the same people year after year.”
Although she generally prefers classes on the lighter side, “a couple of years ago I went to one taught by Rabbi Paul Jacobson,” she said. “It was his first year at Temple Avodat Shalom, and it was about Talmud.
“I had never held a page of Talmud in my hands, and I was moved by it. And then he asked if it was the first time for any of us — and it was me and one other person in the room — and we said a shehechenayu” — the blessing that is said for a new experience. “I was really moved by that.
“And now at Emeth we will experiment with a Talmud class, and I am going to go,” she said.
Dan Firshein of Teaneck has gone to Sweet Tastes of Torah every year; he’s enjoying it so much that “I have been manning the front desk for five or six years now,” greeting people as they come in, he said.
He loves the diversity. “Mostly people stay with their own community, whether it’s their synagogue or their town, most of the time,” but on this one evening each year, “you get a mix of people from all the different congregations. And it’s nice that the rabbis volunteer their time to get the community together.
“It’s a potpourri,” Dr. Firshein continued. “If you are a serious Torah person, you will find something for you. If you are looking for a lighter evening — and usually that’s me — you will find that too.
“There are two sessions, and usually there are five or six I want to go to,” he said.