‘Torah learning is for everyone’

Young Jewish adults find new meaning in ancient tradition

YOUNG ADULT_TorahStudy_web image
Two SVARA learners study a text together at Queer Talmud Camp.

Rabbi Sarah Mulhern has been delighted by how many young Jews are looking for wisdom from ancient texts. "Who would have thought millennials and Gen Z-ers would be knocking on my door to learn Torah on a Tuesday night?" she said.

Mulhern, who serves as the rabbi of Silverstein Base: Lincoln Park builds her classes around questions that matter to young people today--like how to form meaningful friendships and relationships--and structures the classes so students  learn both from texts and from the other people in the room.

Her pupils range in Judaic experience from rabbinical students to people who recently discovered their Jewish heritage, and she believes that "everyone has something to learn from each other." Mulhern's method draws heavily from those of the Shalom Hartman Institute, where she serves as a faculty member.

For Justus Baird, Hartman's Senior Vice President of National Programs, it is important to structure Torah study around "questions we are asking as a Jewish community, and the challenges that the Jewish people are facing around identity, peoplehood, faith and practice, and Zionism."

As part of its Wellspring program, Hartman supports Jews ages 15-25 on their journey to take on professional, lay, or clergy leadership positions, and the educators from Hillels, summer camps, and day schools who work with them.

"Young people have a hunger for knowledge," said Daniel Braunfeld, director of young adult initiatives at Hartman. "The hard work of Torah study is about engaging in questions that are relevant to their lives."

These questions can include everything from the specific--like whether lab-grown pork can be kosher--to the broad--like the different ways that modern Jews understand their Judaism. Life experience is considered a valuable source of knowledge--even without a traditional Jewish upbringing.

At SVARA, founded by Rabbi Benay Lappe in 2003, students of all backgrounds are encouraged to "roll up their sleeves and be active participants in the reshaping and upgrading of the tradition," said Lappe, who is SVARA's president and Rosh Yeshiva.

SVARA--a "traditionally radical yeshiva"--welcomes people who hold a wide range of identities, abilities, and backgrounds to access Torah and Jewish tradition through Talmud study, in its original language, alongside their chevruta (learning partner). As part of each class, students study Jewish tradition--and then they discuss what should be adapted for the modern era.

For Lappe, it's important to remind her students that "young people who find ideas in the tradition that they can't get behind morally or ethically have one more choice besides 'take it or leave it'--and that is to change it. We want to keep what works and fix what doesn't, stay in the game, and be a part of creating the next Jewish future."

To help students of all backgrounds feel comfortable, Lappe cultivates a classroom environment that is "loving, feminist, queer-normative, and where the relationship between the teacher and student is much more horizontal than vertical."

Just like at SVARA, Rabbi Goldie Guy, director of Hadar Chicago, believes that "Torah learning is for everyone." Hadar, which recently expanded to Chicago from its New York-based center, focuses on three values outlined in Pirkei Avot : Torah study, avodah (prayer), and gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness).

Guy strives to create an "egalitarian, accessible, rigorous Jewish community of study with multiple points of entry." Her classes feature original source materials, translations, and guiding questions that help students find themselves in the text.

"Everyone has a place in Torah and can find themselves in Torah--that's the beauty of it," she said. "Everyone should be adding their voice to the tradition; that's what learning should be about. That's exciting for anyone at any level!"

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