A new spin on Torah: New learning circles are perking up Jewish study around the Bay Area

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Katie Robbins is the kind of student who sits in the front, raises her hand and has a lot to say.

But when she sat in a Torah study group in Brooklyn, she fell silent.

“I always felt very uncomfortable, like I was being judged for my background or that I was thought of as not being Jewish enough,” she said.

She felt so ill at ease that she stopped attending.

That is, until she moved to Oakland and found a Jewish learning group that felt comfortable, inviting and meaningful.

“Religious text always felt very distant and esoteric, but now I feel there are ways I can connect with [the text] and make sense of it and add something to a discussion about it even if I don’t have the most rigorous background or education,” Robbins said.

Over the past two years, Robbins, 30, has spent every other Sunday evening with this group, Kevah. An emerging Jewish education nonprofit, Kevah by the fall will have 25 learning circles in the Bay Area taught by seven highly trained Jewish educators.


Kevah founding director Sara Bamberger (right) leads a small Jewish learning circle in Denver. photo/courtesy sara bamberger

Kevah is a Hebrew word that translates as “fixed time,” and it refers to a passage in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that suggests Jews should “make your study of Torah kevah (a set practice).”


“The mitzvah of making a set time for Torah study is what’s driving our organization,” said founding director Sara Bamberger.

But this mitzvah is not affiliated with a synagogue. And this fixed time doesn’t occur in a sanctuary or a classroom — it instead unfolds in a family room, around a kitchen table or at a café. Some participants attended Jewish day school and can read biblical Hebrew; others, like Robbins, grew up with no affiliation and little formal Jewish education.

“We’ve learned that Torah study can be profound and engaging and transformative for people regardless of their personal observance, religious background or previous knowledge of Judaism,” said Bamberger, 37, who lives in Berkeley.


Katie Robbins

Small learning communities are not a new idea. The chavurah movement first sprouted up in the 1960s, offering people a chance to get together in small groups for holidays, lifecycle events, Jewish study or social functions.


Like a chavurah, Kevah groups set their own agenda. But in contrast, Kevah groups are specifically and exclusively focused on classical Jewish text study — and rely on contemporary cultural trends to sustain each group.

A number of studies indicate that unaffiliated 20- and 30-something Jews (Kevah’s primary target audience) are turned off by conventional Jewish institutions and want to create their own Jewish vision of community.

Instead of fighting against this increasingly common tendency, Kevah leans on it. This means it does not recruit for its learning circles. It also doesn’t choose the curriculum, offer class signups or charge a fee.


Deena Aranoff

Instead, Kevah relies on existing social networks to grow a learning group organically. This means that a person interested in starting a Jewish learning group is the one who assembles the group and finds people to participate and commit to attending.


“We don’t convince [people to join]. Their friends convince them,” Bamberger said. “We don’t have to do anything. The group organizer says, ‘Just come to my house for dinner, just once, and if you find it interesting, come again.’ It’s a very informal and organic process.”

Once a group of eight to 12 is formed, the participants decide what they want to learn and how often they want to meet. That determines which educator — all volunteers at this point — Kevah assigns to the group.

Do the group’s members want to read one of the Torah’s five books over the course of a year? Which one? Do they want to focus on more contemporary Torah analysis? Do they want to have a class that follows a more traditional teacher-student model? The participants themselves figure all this out in the first session or two.

Thereafter, Kevah offers ongoing support to each group organizer and educator. Meanwhile, Kevah gets support from UpStart Bay Area, an incubator that offers support to innovative and emerging Jewish nonprofits.


Tamar Rabinowitz

“The Kevah model is learning as community building,” Bamberger said. “We have a high investment in the social as well as the intellectual experience.”


On a Wednesday evening last month, six people clustered in a Bernal Heights family room, sipping red wine and munching on fresh strawberries and banana chips as they discussed the Book of Judges, a part of the Hebrew Bible.

For Janine Okmin of San Francisco, joining a Kevah group has provided her with her first serious Torah study. Which Jewish book or subject the group discusses is irrelevant to her, she said.

“What’s important to me is having the accountability of a group and the guidance of a teacher without the structure of a class,” Okmin said. “Being in someone’s home makes this feel relaxed and casual. And the teacher is open to where the conversation goes.

“For me, conversation-based learning makes the knowledge much more enduring.”

Throughout the two-hour session, participants took turns reading aloud passages from the Bible and commentary their teacher brought to supplement the reading. They periodically chimed in with opinions and questions. Hands were never raised.


Jonathan Esensten and Janine Okmin meet with their Kevah group twice a month to study Prophets. photo/stacey palevsky

“I grew up going to day school and reading the Tanach, but I have no memory of any of it, so it’s like I’m learning everything for the first time again,” said Andrew Walter, another participant.


The group’s teacher is Tamar Rabinowitz, a charismatic, enthusiastic and animated Jewish educator whose day job is teaching teenagers at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay.

While she loves teaching young people, Kevah provides her with a unique opportunity: to learn with her peers. She likes it so much she teaches two groups.

“I get to learn with cool, quirky and bright people my age,” said Rabinowitz, 34. “Because I’m facilitating a discussion and not simply leading a class, I feel like I’m learning a lot.”

Kevah teachers are qualified to address many topics — such as a particular week’s Torah portion or Jewish mindfulness or Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah or Jewish parenting — Bamberger said. All educators have doctorates or graduate degrees in Jewish studies, or they are working professional Jewish educators. By next year, she hopes to be able to pay them.

“The learning group model is about integrating a practice of Torah study into one’s life, while committing to a spiritual discipline and hopefully being transformed by it,” said Deena Aranoff, a professor at the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union.

She teaches two learning groups, one in San Francisco (studying the Book of Lamentations) and one in Berkeley (studying the Book of Samuel).

For Aranoff, it’s rewarding and exciting to be a part of an intimate, diverse and curious bunch of Jews.

“This is not about taking the text and imposing it on those who study them; it’s about creating a dialogue between the classical conversations of the rabbis and the conversations of today,” Aranoff said. “These 3,000 years of text and tradition and wisdom can become important ingredients in how we shape our own lives.”

For now, Kevah consists solely of learning circles, but Bamberger has struck up a relationship with the GTU Center for Jewish Studies — and she is working on launching a program in late 2011 tentatively called the Kevah Institute (assuming she secures enough funding, which she is also working on).

The Kevah Institute — to be modeled after Pardes, the unique pluralistic yeshiva in Jerusalem — will be a more formal extension of the learning circles, but not a replacement for them. The institute will allow people to earn a degree from GTU or a certificate preparing them to lead Kevah learning groups, but it also will offer individual classes to those who are interested.

“Our grand vision is that the learning groups become a national phenomenon supported by the Kevah Institute, with our graduates returning to their communities where they’ll continue to facilitate Jewish learning for their own social networks,” Bamberger said.

While most Kevah groups are composed of unaffiliated Jews, the emerging nonprofit has partnered with two East Bay synagogues to offer learning circles to its members. Bamberger also is in conversation with the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education to develop a partnership.

“It’s in the interest of the community to promote experimentation and to support innovations and new models and new ways of reaching people,” said David Waksburg, director of the BJE.

“In a sense, every generation reinvents the way it relates to Judaism,” he added. “Kevah seems to be really well-equipped to reach that population effectively. Their model is elegant, easy to understand and powerful.”

For the past five years, the BJE has organized a young adult Feast of Jewish Learning, an annual event that draws hundreds of young adults.

At the 2009 feast, Bamberger noted, 35 of the 350 people in attendance said in a survey that they wanted ongoing Jewish learning and were interested in hosting a learning group.

“The BJE has a feast once a year — Kevah is providing the ongoing nourishment, or snacks, on a weekly basis,” Waksburg said.

Bamberger grew up in Denver with a father who started a religious school out of their home, teaching his children and others about Jewish text and philosophy. She went on to major in religious studies at Yale University and earn a graduate degree in international relations at Georgetown University. In between, she spent a year in Jerusalem studying at Pardes.

Upon moving to Berkeley in 2005 (her husband had landed a law professorship), she found work as the coordinator of U.C. Berkeley’s Religion, Politics and Globalization Program.

“But ultimately, the Jewish educator got the best of me, and I decided that what I was really interested in was a new way of doing grassroots Jewish education for adults.”

Kevah grew out of a kitchen-table conversation between Bamberger, her brother, Jacob Heitler, and a couple of their friends.

Robbins, a member of the East Bay Kevah Group, is grateful that Kevah helped her realize that Jewish text can be accessible and engaging, even for someone like her who grew up in an interfaith family with little formal Jewish education.

“Because my mother wasn’t Jewish, I always felt pressure to convert but never felt comfortable doing that,” she said.

Through her conversations with her Kevah teacher Rabbi David Kasher, she found a happy medium. She decided to do an affirmation ceremony and immerse in a mikvah. It’s something she said she’d never have done without Kevah.

“I certainly feel more confident in knowing that I do have a place within the Jewish community and that there are people who are accepting and interested in what I have to say,” Robbins said. “I’ve learned there are many different ways of learning and connecting to Judaism in ways I hadn’t thought possible.”

For more information about Kevah, or to start a group, contact Sara Bamberger at [email protected], call (510) 684-6314 or visit www.kevah.org.

Cover illustration by cathleen maclearie, and photos by stacey palevsky.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.