6 rabbis from around the world settle in South Bay to teach

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God has underwritten the cost of six yeshiva-educated young couples to move to the Bay Area, with the goal of raising Jewish literacy in the area.

Well, not exactly. But that's how Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman described the arrival of the 12 young people to Palo Alto recently.

They are "HaShem's messengers for doing this enormous mitzvah," said Feldman.

The spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Emek Beracha in Palo Alto is thrilled that after two years of talking and planning, the group, calling itself the Jewish Study Network, has arrived in the heart of Silicon Valley.

The group is affiliated with the Baltimore-based Association for Jewish Outreach Professionals, which has established similar kinds of outreach programs in different parts of the country.

"They will be sort of an outsourcing resource for people who are looking to learn," Feldman said. Speaking of the entire Bay Area, he said, "We have an area which is impoverished when it comes to serious Jewish learning, and it's time to address that."

The group's leader is Rabbi Joey Felsen, a 30-year-old Toronto native, who is here with his wife, Sarah, and their three children. Felsen said that he had always been a Jewish activist, and early on in his career he decided to pursue the rabbinate, motivated by the desire to help others learn.

Of the six rabbis and their wives, the oldest is 31. They come from all parts of the country as well as the world: Berkeley, Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami and New York, plus Canada, Venezuela, Belgium, Gibraltar and South Africa. Five of the rabbis studied at yeshivot in Jerusalem; one studied at Yeshiva University in New York.

Both the husbands and wives will do the teaching. The women "are going to be very involved in the community; that was one of the factors in determining the teams," Felsen said.

They are funded by a number of philanthropists both from the Bay Area and beyond, all with the same goal of promoting Jewish education. As of now, this is an experiment, and the donors want to remain anonymous.

When the team was coming together, participants chose the Bay Area because "we wanted to see where we could offer the most to the Jewish world," Felsen said. For a Jewish community of its size, he said, the Bay Area's "Jewish education is not nearly what it is in other communities in North America."

So far, the couples are supposed to be here for three years and will serve in whatever capacity is wanted by varying sectors of the community. Although the couples are Orthodox, they have already made inroads with some Conservative and Reform synagogues in the area, and their outreach will be to all sectors of the community. They have no connection with Chabad.

"We are trying to offer ourselves as freelance educators for the Jewish community," Felsen said. "What that means is we're planning to run home-study groups in an informal, relaxed environment and 'Lunch and Learns' for executives in their offices. We want to make the study of Judaism a part of their lives in some way."

While the team will mostly be focussing on adults, members also plan to work with the Jewish day schools in the area and are talking about running retreats as well as Shabbatons for families.

Felsen had visited three times prior to make sure the community was receptive to the group's efforts.

Now that they've arrived, they're doing research by talking to Jewish community leaders to find out where the needs are greatest.

"We're planning to launch everything in the fall," he said. "We want to make sure that what we're providing is what people want, and we want to do what people are interested in. It's a really exciting feeling right now."

Claude Ganz, who lives in both San Francisco and Glen Ellen, is interested in studying Jewish texts. Ganz's son is a rabbi in Israel who knows Felsen, which is how he heard of him.

Ganz, who describes himself as a secular Jew who belongs to several synagogues, said he agreed to help these "brilliant scholars" come to the Bay Area "for a purely selfish reason: I want to study with them."

Ganz and Felsen met recently to discuss holding a weekly meeting in Ganz's San Francisco apartment for people who want to study either the Bible or the Talmud.

"Many of my secular friends have not had the background and would love to learn more," said Ganz, who estimated his study group would begin with about six to eight people and would grow from word of mouth.

Ganz said he knew that one of the biggest problems facing Jewish education was the lack of teachers. That 12 of them have just arrived in the Bay Area prompted him to say, "The more the better."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."