ETERNAL WISDOM, MODERN LIFE: The YU Torah Mitzion Kollel of Chicago celebrates ten years of bringing the Torah’s teachings to all Jews in an effort to enlighten the world

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Anyone who invites me to engage in the lively art of conversation, I’m all in.

So I made a beeline for the Bernard Weinger JCC in Northbrook when the folks who run Jewish Learning Together, a division of the YU Torah Mitzion Kollel of Chicago, invited me to participate in their monthly program that combines kibitzing and learning.

The YU Torah Mitzion Kollel of Chicago, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, is made up of Torah scholars, some from Israel, some from around the United States, who engage in intensive study of Talmud, Jewish law and Jewish thought. Beyond that, the Kollel is a ‘yeshiva without walls,’ giving classes throughout the community on a wide range of topics, offering chavurot, one on one study sessions, as well as special programs for all ages and all levels of observance. The Kollel describes itself as “an open community of learning that celebrates the core values: the primacy of Torah, the importance of Madda (secular wisdom) and the religious significance of the State of Israel.”

One example of their outreach in the community is Jewish Learning Together, which gathers some 20 people of both genders together. The class matches non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews in pairs to derive lessons from Torah and Talmudic passages. Instead of rote learning, the passages stimulate thought and exchanges between the learning pairs. Humor is welcome, the inevitable result of chit-chat. The matched pairs come out of the session more intellectually affluent than entering.

Rabbi Yakov Danishefsky, leader of Jewish Learning Together, arrives early at the J to set out popcorn and drinks. And then Danishefsky expertly melds past and present to bring Jewish teachings alive, applying age-old wisdom to today’s challenges.

The topic on this night is “The Ethics of Protest: Social Activism in Jewish Thought.”  Ancient and more modern passages he uses in his handout do not specifically call for activism or protest. That is left up to the individual, based on conscious choice, along with interpretation of the passages.

My partner is Binyomin Babendir, an internal auditor for NorthShore Health System. The Orthodox man with an easy laugh is also attending his first Jewish Learning Together session.  Meanwhile, I am fresh from book research on the world-changing protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Our perspectives surely come from different directions.

Our first passage, available in both English and Hebrew, is Breishit Chapter 2, Verse 15: “The Lord G-d took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and to guard it.” Babendir and I both agree that crucial things in our lives must be both promoted for growth and carefully maintained. Babendir suggests one task may be more important than the other, depending on circumstances. I say those associated with the “garden” should be multi-taskers; they should be growers and guards since both could be necessary at once.

OK, not a chasm at all. Next was Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b: “Whoever can influence the members of his household to stop in their wayward behavior, but does not, he is accountable for the behavior of his household. If he can influence the people of his city to stop their wayward behavior, but does not, he is accountable for the behavior of the people of his city. If he can stop the whole world from their wayward behavior, and does not, he is accountable for the behavior of the whole world.”

Simply put, the socially-conscious person should speak up and do something about it if he sees a wrong.

Since Babendir works for a health-care company, I throw out the topic of health-care as a civil right, not a privilege based on income or employment. I also suggest that when life-saving or disease-preventing equipment or processes are readily available, no one should be denied access. Surely a Jewish precept however you cut it.

Babendir agrees – with a caveat. “How will we pay for it?” he replies, the combo auditor and the practical man up front. My reply: let’s save lives and then reasonably discuss how to fund it. Remember, this is not a congressional partisan divide. This is real life.

And then we move on to Leviticus – Chapter 19: “You shall not go around as a gossip-monger amidst your people. You shall not stand by (the shedding of) your fellow’s blood. I am the Lord.”

Danishefsky puts in his two cents to the group. He urges all to speak up when faced with a collective wrong or wayward individual. It’s not enough to just sit and stew.

In other sessions, Danishefsky runs the gamut of subjects from the concept of forgiveness, Jewish ethics in friendship and community, Jewish perspectives on vacation and leisure and the Jewish morning routine.

And Jewish Learning Together can turn on a dime in reacting to the issues of the day. A recent session dealt with sexual harassment.

“We’re very nimble,” says the head of the Kollel, Rabbi Reuven Brand, “because we’re small and we’re young and we’re looking for ways to really meet people where they are and provide as much inspirational Torah as possible. That means classes in people’s offices, one-on-one conferences on what interests you in learning, and more.”

Such stimulation of thought processes has been the goal of the privately-funded Kollel, headquartered at Ida Crown Jewish Academy, since it was founded a decade ago. Classes cover religious, social and civic issues with a Torah basis, reaching out throughout the Chicago area to all Jews regardless of their religious level. They are scheduled weekly or monthly, or as special programs.  Some are held in the same location every week and others are hosted by different people at their homes or in different venues. NILI – Chicago Institute of Women’s Learning, is a new initiative of the Kollel which provides learning opportunities to women of all ages and backgrounds.

“The mission of the Kollel is to transform Chicago’s Jewish community,” says Brand, who has led it since the beginning. “It accomplishes that by bringing outstanding young Torah scholars and their wives and families to the community. These scholars share and develop that scholarship and warmth in the community. Because they come from a particular background, that vision of what the community can look like can transform the community.

“The ideal says the eternal wisdom of Torah is pertinent to every aspect of modern life.

“The Kollel is obviously an Orthodox entity,” says Brand. “We share specific values within the fellows of the Kollel.  But it is an open community. It serves the entire Jewish community.

“There are other kollels in Chicago, but they have different sets of values. We come with a religious-Zionist and a centrist philosophy. We view the world not as a threat, but as an opportunity to engage and enlighten it.”

Brand rates a major accomplishment in the Kollel’s first decade, attracting families from other cities who were to be part of the kollel for two years but who have chosen to stay on in the Chicago area.  He lists a pulpit rabbi, a teacher, an attorney, a social worker and a business owner as among the occupations represented.

“By graduating our fellows into the Chicago Jewish community, we have seeded the community with people who are role models for all.

“We don’t have our own building, by design. Every additional resource we bring to the community is instantly added to your shul, your school or your family.

“The essence is creating a community of learning. In the heart of that community, you have people who are the lightning rod of that learning. They learn themselves and they share that learning with others.

“Then concentric circles of learning are built. Young moms are one group. We had some 20 women come on a Monday night to hear our assistant leader speak. That’s concentric circles, all one community of learning.”

The end result, Brand says, is no matter what their level of religiosity, “countless individuals and families are more passionate about their Judaism, and they’re more engaged in learning than they ever were before and they would be otherwise. We’ve opened doors for people to take ownership of their Judaism and take it to the next level.”

Running a Zionist-oriented organization enables Brand’s teachers to better interpret Israel than many other educational entities.

“Fellows who have come to our Kollel from Israel have served in the army and have various secular educations in addition to extensive yeshiva education,” he says. “We are taking the religious-Zionist philosophy and bringing it to the lives of our people in an inspirational way with real-life role models from Israel.”

Brand’s group of teachers try to cut through the noise to present a positive image of Israel.

“We’ll run programs for kids in high schools that focus on religious Zionism to inspire kids when they’re young, and programs for adults,” he says. “We have an annual Israel Remembrance Day program, to connect people here to the sacrifice and meaning that Israelis are living, through the prism of Judaism. We’ll educate people about the compelling story of the state of Israel today through our religious-Zionist philosophy.”

Brand and Co. have not yet scheduled a seminar on the controversy over egalitarian prayer areas at the Western Wall. But if and when they do, “we have to be able to understand where people are coming from, and hear them out, even if we disagree. I think there are ways of disagreeing politely and respectfully.”

Such a philosophy already appears to make Jewish Learning Together an appealing Kollel offering. The hour goes by quickly for a new participant. Seemingly, Danishefsky could easily double the time without anyone getting mentally worn out.

“JLT believes that the diversity of the Chicago Jewish community is a largely untapped strength,” he says. “Our dream is to see people connect with one another through our unique Jewish heritage of ideas, ideologies and texts. From seasoned learners to first-time beginners, this program will be meaningful and stimulating. Study partners have included colleagues from work, old friends, relatives, and even people meeting for the first time.

“Attending JLT for the past year has opened my eyes to millennia-old Jewish ideals while sitting across from an old friend in a social setting and meeting new friends,” says Steve Sher.  “JTL is a perfect mix for my love of history, law and my religion.”

Library-style quiet and decorum is in short supply.

“My favorite part of JLT is the noise in the room when each group is delving into their source sheets,” says Laurie Hasten. “Each time I attend a JLT event, the text sheets are relevant and provide background for high level, dynamic discussion.”

Participants never know who they will meet at an event. As the night gets underway, I am introduced to real-estate attorney Dov Pinchot. But new-home prices and interest rates get put on the back burner when Pinchot mentions brother Ari, producer of the DVD, “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.”

A Jewish celebrity’s obligations to greater society as a whole would be an edgy subject for a night’s debate.  The lessons of Hall of Famer Greenberg, not observant at all but still aware of his role in the Jewish greater good, would never be lost on the de facto students.

One other modern passage closing Danishefsky’s program gives even more kosher food for thought, about so-called social activists making a key purchase, a Toyota Prius. The excerpt comes from a 2010 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article:

“Why is the Prius so successful? One possibility is that the Prius is a hybrid gas-electric vehicle, meaning that it costs less to fuel. Yet it costs many thousands of dollars more to purchase the Prius than a conventional but highly fuel-efficient car such as the Honda Civic…When the New York Times reported the top five reasons why Prius owners bought their cars, environmental conservation was last on the list. Instead, Prius owners proudly reported that the No. 1 reason for purchasing the car is because it “makes a statement about me.”

Place that statement on Facebook without context? Danishefsky closes the program by saying he is “uncomfortable” with the social-media process where one simply presses “like.”

“I am focusing on growth,” he says. “Your own character can improve others. We grow by growing ourselves.”

Brand says that belief represents the Kollel’s goal in its entirety.

“We’d like to continue to grow our community of learning,” he says.  “Engage more people. We’re only at the beginning. It’s only 10 years. There are 300,000 Jews in Chicago, and we have resources at our disposal to make an impact. Our goal is to be efficient in reaching as many people as we can and continue to grow those concentric circles of influence of this community of learning.”

YU Torah Mitzion Kollel will celebrate its 10th anniversary by honoring Rabbi Reuven and Dr. Nechama Brand at a dinner on Feb. 25, which will feature a class given by British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. For more information, call (773) 973-6557.

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