BJE shoots for the moon in 5th Feast of Jewish Learning

Once in a blue moon, Jews from Reform to Orthodox beliefs come together to learn and pray. Now they're joining forces to celebrate the moon.

As part of the fifth annual "Feast of Jewish Learning," 20 synagogues plus a handful of community organizations will host events focusing on Rosh Chodesh, the celebration of the new moon.

Night hikes, star gazing, havdallah services and special discussions on Jewish holidays will take place across the Bay Area from late January through late February.

One star in the constellation of events will be Congregation Beth Am's "A Night of Jewish Unity" on Saturday, Feb. 6 in Los Altos Hills. Four other synagogues and two day schools plan to participate in the free evening of Torah study, dancing and a closing oneg.

"I think it's going to be a lot of fun," said event organizer Rabbi Josh Zweiback, director of adult education at the Reform Beth Am. "Sadly, there are not too many times people from all movements, from Chabad to Reform, come to learn together."

The S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, which sponsors the event, conceived the "Feast" to give new flavor to the relatively unknown holiday.

Several sessions at Beth Am will be co-taught by rabbis from different streams and congregations and will include instruction in Hebrew, English and Russian. Zweiback, whose teaching partner will be a Conservative rabbi, said, "There is something here for everyone, whatever language you speak. How many opportunities are there to have a Chassidic and Reform rabbi in the same room?"

To make sure no one goes home empty-handed, the BJE has compiled over 1,000 bags stuffed with information and gifts related to Rosh Chodesh. Included in the bag: a moon-shaped cookie cutter, a music tape, a card game, stickers to mark each month's new moon and an educational pamphlet. The kits are funded by the Koret Foundation, the Jack Langsam Foundation, Sinai Memorial Chapel and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Kerin Lieberman, the BJE's associate director, said, "We decided on Rosh Chodesh because it's one of those holidays not widely done. We want to offer a fresh and innovative approach to make learning interesting, and hopefully we've done that."

Instead of offering a single large event as in the past, the BJE decided to encourage other organizations to host their own events and distribute resources and materials, said Calla Belkin, marketing director at the BJE. Several women's groups already offer monthly gatherings during the holiday, which has traditionally been associated with women.

Rabbi Sydney Mintz of San Francisco Reform Congregation Emanu-El jumped at the idea. She'll present a talk titled "A Funny Thing Happened of the Way to the Moon" at Emanu-El, on Tuesday, Feb. 9.

Mintz plans to speak on why the Jewish calendar is arranged according to the lunar cycle, instead of the solar cycle that organizes the secular calendar.

She'll also discuss the special significance the holiday has for women. Rosh Chodesh is close to women, Mintz said, "since the lunar cycle coincides with women's natural cycle and the Midrash suggests the holiday is a gift to women who didn't melt their gold to make the Golden Calf."

Mintz added the holiday is easy for everyone to appreciate. "Just go outside and look up," she said.