‘Torah transcends denomination’

‘Torah transcends denomination’

Local woman oversees videos that help bring meaning to text

Screenshot from the most recent Aleph Beta Chanukah video. It illustrates a Talmudic story about Adam’s fear that the first winter heralded the destruction of the world.
Screenshot from the most recent Aleph Beta Chanukah video. It illustrates a Talmudic story about Adam’s fear that the first winter heralded the destruction of the world.

In the week before Chanukah, approximately 15,000 people from across the globe are expected to click on any of five short animated holiday courses available at Aleph Beta Academy, lured by such teasing titles as “Reindeer and Latkes: Aren’t The Winter Holidays Suspiciously Similar?”

Rabbi David Fohrman founded Aleph Beta (alephbeta.org) in 2011; his goal was to help people discover satisfying answers to life’s questions through intellectually and emotionally engaging videos that delve into Torah text. Some 550 paying subscribers include people from every stream of Judaism and other religions, in addition to Jewish day and supplemental schools.

In the offices of the Long Island-based nonprofit, its executive producer, Bergen County native Rivky Stern, oversees a complex and fast-paced production process involving scriptwriters, animators, videographers, video editors, and Jewish educators headed by Rabbi Fohrman.

Ms. Stern, 29, grew up in Bergenfield and attended the Moriah School in Englewood and the Frisch School in Paramus. After two years at Midreshet Harova, a religious Zionist seminary in Jerusalem, she majored in Africana studies (the history, politics, and cultures of peoples of African origin in Africa and the African diaspora) at Johns Hopkins University and spent a semester abroad in Ghana.

Ms. Stern was active in her campus Hillel and led a couple of Israel Outdoors Birthright trips, leading her to ponder a career in informal Jewish education that was not limited to an Orthodox environment.

The direction she was seeking became clear during a long drive to a wedding in Atlanta the summer after her junior year.

Her carpool mates asked if she wouldn’t mind passing the hours in transit by listening to an audio course on the biblical book of Jonah taught by Rabbi Fohrman, formerly an adjunct lecturer at Johns Hopkins and lead writer and editor for ArtScroll’s Talmud translation project.

By the time they arrived in Atlanta, Ms. Stern felt transformed.

“His presentation was so impactful not only because it was the most compelling read of this book that I’d ever heard but because it was so relevant,” she said. “All the tools and methodology Rabbi Fohrman used in his textual analysis directly translated into why the book of Jonah has meaning for me now, as it has for people throughout time. I felt I should be leading my life a little differently for having learned this.

“I was transformed in the way I thought about Bible.”

Rivky Stern (Lisa Pasternak)
Rivky Stern (Lisa Pasternak)

After graduating from college in 2011, Ms. Stern took a job at Cool Kippahs, a division of Judaica House in Teaneck. In August 2012 a friend told her about a sales job opening at Aleph Beta.

Sales didn’t really float her boat, but she jumped at the opportunity to work with Rabbi Fohrman. Before long she was promoted to content and production manager, finally becoming executive producer in February 2016. For the first three years she also worked for 10 hours a week as an informal Jewish educator at New York University through the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program.

Ms. Stern has a hand in every product created at Aleph Beta, including Rabbi Fohrman’s most recent book, “The Exodus You Almost Passed Over.” But her main focus is the videos — there are now about 250 of them.

“I don’t think of myself as a creative person,” Ms. Stern said. “I manage the calendar and schedule on a daily basis, editing outlines and scripts and helping to shape Rabbi Fohrman’s ideas with other staffers. I guide the conversation and make suggestions to push it forward. Then I work with audio and video editors on every detail; it could be that a scene needs to be more emotional, or a word is missing an apostrophe, or the colors aren’t consistent from one frame to another.”

Although she attends an Orthodox synagogue near her home in upper Manhattan and observes Shabbat and kashrut, Ms. Stern prefers not to use denominational labels.

“I believe Torah transcends denomination,” she said.

The Aleph Beta approach she espouses is not geared to outreach or preaching, she explained. The goal is to forge a connection with the biblical text — “to reattach ourselves to the book written by God” — and consequently to gain a sense of meaning in Jewish living, whether or not you follow its dictates.

While formal Jewish education in the United States generally is understood to be facing two major crises — the cost of tuition and the failure to produce adults who can engage fully with Hebrew textual sources — Ms. Stern says the more fundamental crisis is the failure to impart meaning and purpose.

“If you marry another Jew without a compelling reason to do so, you’re just being racist and you’re not continuing to pass down the legacy from Abraham and Moses,” she said. “You’re not fulfilling any sort of mission to make the world a better place.

“Judaism isn’t just about the Holocaust or bagels. Judaism has to be about something real. So our goal at Aleph Beta is to impart the meaning that we think is inherent in Judaism and that meaning can be found in serious textual study of the Bible.”

Ms. Stern acknowledges that watching a video or two will not magically enhance your relationship with God or change you into a better spouse, parent, or coworker. But, she said, “I think regularly learning Torah this way makes you a better person.

“When Rabbi Fohrman finds new meanings in texts I think that does make him a better father and husband, and a better boss to me. I think I’m a nicer person because of Torah. Too often religion is used as a negative tool, but Torah is a guidebook for how to live your life to create a better world.

“We need to make it relevant and compelling to everyone.”

Ms. Stern said that the comments and emails the company receives from subscribers of all ages and faiths validate the Aleph Beta philosophy and keep her enthusiastic about her job. “I feel privileged when I come into work every day,” she said. “How many people can say that?”

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