Beit midrash offering Berkeleyites daily dose of Torah

Berkeley, known more for Karl Marx than Moses, now holds daily Torah study at a beit midrash on Vine and Grant streets.

Convinced that Berkeley needs a place to provide the "meat and potatoes of Judaism," Jody Feld and several others founded Ohr HaChaim, a traditional house of study where students of all levels of observance can learn Torah and Talmud.

"There's a lot of places to go for the spiritual side, bits and pieces," said Feld, who is Orthodox. "But if you want to plug in, in a solid way, there [wasn't] any place to go on a regular day-to-day basis."

Ohr HaChaim, also known, as "The Little Beit Midrash That Could," is trying to fill that need. Open since May, it will celebrate its grand opening on Sunday.

"Berkeley is hopping with Jewish activity in a way that I don't remember it in the past. The beit midrash is one more piece in that picture," said Tamar Bittelman, who with husband Noah, is one of the founders of Ohr HaChaim. She also attends classes there.

"It's really a way of incorporating Torah into daily life as opposed to taking a class once a week," says the Berkeley resident and children's clothing designer.

At Ohr HaChaim, students get a daily dose of Torah with Rashi's commentary as well as Mishnah and Jewish law. There are also evening classes in Gemarah and the Torah portion of the week.

Starting Monday, classes in Kabbalah and Chassidic thought will be added to the mix.

"It's an incredible way to start the day, learning Torah," says Bittelman. "It really changes everything. It's an opportunity to deal directly with text and not somebody's interpretation of them. It's the most exciting thing Torah-wise going on in Berkeley. It's very practical and deep."

At Sunday's opening, the public can sample classes along with wine and cheese. David Kidd will provide live violin music. A complete list of winter classes will also be available.

Other teachers include Feld's husband, Chanan Feld, a mohel who also helped found the school; Henry Falkenberg, head of Congregation Keneseth Israel in San Francisco; and Yonatan Beitz, the kashrut overseer at Sabra Grill Restaurant in San Francisco.

Future guest teachers include the Samborer Rabbi Hershel Yolles (by speaker phone from Brooklyn) and Elana Friedman, a teacher at Shaarim, a woman's yeshiva in Jerusalem. She'll also be leading a Tu B'Shevat seder.

Eventually, Jody Feld would like the beit midrash to be a place where Jews could study any time, day or night. She emphasizes that Ohr HaChaim is a place where Jews of all streams and levels of knowledge can feel comfortable.

"This is about people who live in Berkeley who take care of other parts of themselves who also have a steady way to plug into Torah," she said. "It doesn't ask you to change your life. It doesn't ask you to dress differently. It allows people to grow at their own rate. It's a more holistic approach."

Students say the teaching style at Ohr HaChaim is an open one.

The Felds are both "very open to discussion," says Shoshanah Chanah Sommerville, an elementary school teacher and student at the beit midrash.

"They're not rigid in their approaches. There's give and take between teachers and students. They're generous in the way they teach. They're not goal-oriented in terms of the amount of information they have to put in each person's head…They enjoy what they teach."

Jody Feld wants the beit midrash to have ripple effects on Berkeley's spirituality.

"It was a conscious thought of mine, how can one increase holiness in the Bay Area?" she said. Torah study "changes their lives. It definitely changes their day. Every conversation you have, every choice you have placed before you, you think of in a different way. It has the potential in its own very small way, to really change the Jewish faith in Berkeley."