Jewish hunger is fed at lunch-and-learns

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The trouble with cyberspace Judaism is like the trouble with the Babylonians, says Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom.

Both offer "authority" opinions with no regard for the particulars of time or place.

In Talmudic times the Jews of Fez converted to Islam — on paper. They continued to light Shabbat candles and celebrate Jewish festivals without persecution, until a Babylonian Jew visited North Africa and told the Jews that they should die rather than convert.

Rambam — whose family, it is rumored, converted to Islam — wrote a treatise essentially saying, "This is our problem and our solution. Go back to Babylon," according to Lew.

Rambam's statement set the stage for a diverse Judaism.

"Judaism has evolved into such a rich culture because of the synthesis of enduring principles and particular demands of all the crazy places Jews have lived," Lew says.

"But when you have people making abstract pronouncements [in Fez or even on the Internet today] without looking at the thousand local factors involved, you can run into trouble," Lew says.

On Feb. 13, Lew will lead a discussion on this topic, titled "Space and Cyberspace in the Jewish Tradition." It is one of five open lunch-and-learn sessions sponsored by the San Francisco-based Bureau of Jewish Education in celebration of its Feb. 10-17 Feast of Jewish Learning.

The second annual "feast" highlights ongoing educational opportunities in the Bay Area. However, a few additional programs — like a communitywide Havdallah celebration in Golden Gate Park on Feb. 17 and the lunch-and-learn sessions — were dreamed up to tempt potential Jewish scholars.

Lunch-and-learn topics include Lew's Space and Cyberspace discussion at 11:45 a.m. at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon; Rabbi Lavey Derby's "Is There a Jewish Way to Treat Our Clientele?" at 11:30 a.m., Feb. 13 at Menorah Park Solarium in San Francisco; Rabbi Rona Shapiro's "God and Spirituality," noon, Feb. 14 at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto; rabbinic student Sydney Mintz's "How We See Our Text, Then and Now," 12:30 p.m., Feb. 15 at Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa; and Rabbi Henry Shreibman's "The Two L's — Love and Leadership," noon, Feb. 12 at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City.

The lunch-and-learn sessions provide an opportunity to expand "Jewish learning into the work environment — the boardrooms and law offices," says Kerin Lieberman, BJE associate director and chair of the "feast" steering committee.

"We compartmentalize our lives and tend to do Jewish things on Friday and Saturday, but why not Tuesday?"

Also, many of the lunch-and-learn topics directly impact the working world — with a Jewish slant.

For example, Lew's seminar acknowledges the Internet's positive aspects. "People have access to vast amounts of information that they wouldn't normally have," he says.

"People are tuning into Jewish discussions and receiving d'vrai Torah [biblical interpretations]. Rabbis have access to other opinions on thornier questions," he adds. "That is nothing but good."

The problem is in the concept of mara d'atra or "master of the place," according to Lew.

"In cyberspace, there is no place. Each rabbi is the ultimate authority of his congregation and [therefore] makes the synthesis between Jewish tradition and their place," he says. "The authority of locals is undermined and the importance of local reality is undermined as well.

"And as more and more people are recognized as `experts,' and more people plug into them, there becomes less diversity of thought in every field."