Group offers yeshiva learning with a Berkeley bent

Groups of two or three huddle over a talmudic text, trying to decipher its meaning and relevance.

The scene, a familiar one in traditional yeshivas, has found its way to Berkeley — albeit with a modern twist.

The East Bay Havruta Project, an informal study group, meets one Sunday evening every month.

"For me, this is the best way to study anything, especially Jewish text," co-founder Shachar Pinsker said. "There's a great harmony between the content and the method of learning it."

The Hebrew word havruta, alternatively spelled chevruta, comes from chaver, or friend.

The group was started last year by Pinsker, an Israeli and graduate student in Jewish studies at U.C. Berkeley, and Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield, then a U.C. Berkeley graduate student and now the Judaic studies coordinator at Marin's Brandeis Hillel School.

Both had experienced similar forms of study in Jerusalem and felt a void in the East Bay.

An average of 25 people routinely show up at Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley to discuss the havruta project's topic of the day, as presented by the group's leaders or members. The themes have included repentance, mourning, circumcision, sukkot and the significance of names.

After a brief introduction on the subject, the class members break into the small groups for a period of intense study and discussion.

The havruta project is trying to return to the days when the Talmud was taught as a series of ideas and concepts, not as rote law.

Yeshivas were the predominant learning institution of the day, and their method of study — focused interaction between small numbers of students, instead of one-way interaction between a teacher and a class — inspired dialogue and debate, conceptualization and communication.

Traditional yeshivas have largely fallen by the wayside in modern America, in favor of lecture-heavy Sunday school classes and theological graduate degree programs. As is the case with anything fashionable, however, a good idea will always come back into vogue.

There are certainly ideological differences between the havruta project and its traditional counterparts — mainly the presence of women and their role in the studies.

With a female founder and numerous female members, however, there is no mistaking the West Coast for the West Bank.

The only exclusion embraced here is that of the traditional teacher's role. Pinsker, Rosenfield or the occasional student's overviews are as close to lectures as it gets, with the real learning achieved during the small-group discussions.

"This is a community setting, where people of different levels and different backgrounds can come together and study," Rosenfield said.

"I was excited about having this kind of community in Berkeley, where you studied Torah for the sake of Torah, and did it in small groups so that you could really express your ideas and ask the questions you wanted to ask."

Not only are people with limited backgrounds in Jewish study tolerated, they're encouraged to attend.

The groups are divided so that there is at least one Hebrew speaker in each, if at all possible, to give a first-hand translation of any Hebrew text that might be part of the presentation. Texts are also translated into English.

Those with extensive knowledge are partnered with those with a lesser degree of Jewish education.

"We have very intelligent people in the group who just don't happen to be Jewish scholars," Pinsker said. "They come with their own agendas and their own knowledge, and it just enriches the experience."

Pinsker added that he has found "a lot of spirituality in the Bay Area, but not a lot of Jewish studies." Thus, he encourages Jews to give his group a try.

"People are intimidated by this type of learning. They think they need to take `Introduction to Talmud' before they're ready to come here. But there's really nothing scary about it — they can jump right in and pick it up as they go. And what people get out of it is tremendous."