New learning program launched in Connecticut
By Cindy Mindell
WATERBURY – Over the last 15 years, the planned Orthodox community built around Yeshiva Ateres Shmuel of Waterbury has slowly transformed a struggling city, growing from nine pioneering families to 200, with all the trappings of a vibrant Jewish communal life – synagogues, schools and yeshivot, kosher food outlets, and newly-built neighborhoods affordable to young families.
Now, this community is offering its collective experience in Torah study to Jews outside the yeshiva, in the form of Connecticut Torah Connection (CTC), an informal weekly adult-learning session. The program debuted earlier this year at B’nai Shalom Synagogue, spearheaded by Rabbi Baruch Levine, vice principal of Yeshiva K’tana of Waterbury, and his cousin, Rabbi Shneur Levine, a teacher at the school.
Baruch Levine, who also performs Jewish music, got the idea last June while on tour in Detroit, when one of his hosts brought him to see a Tuesday evening Torah class. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Levine recalls. “There were 400 people learning in one room – half of them more religiously affiliated, learning with partners who were not.”
What connected the participants, no matter their Jewish background or level of knowledge or even the distance they traveled to the session, says Levine, was the shared inheritance of Torah and a desire to delve into some aspect of the text.
Levine has lived in Waterbury for 10 years but was not aware of any other Torah-learning program like the one in Detroit. So, he recruited Rabbi Shneur Levine and enlisted mentors from the Orthodox community. With advice, support, and resources from Partners in Torah, a national organization that pairs learning partners around the country via phone and Skype, they launched the Tuesday evening session in January with three pairs of students. Now, 14 regular duos meet weekly, men and women ages 25 to 70 (paired by gender) from as far away as Hartford and Farmington.
Each mentor-partner chavrusa – Hebrew for “learning pair” – is matched on the Partners in Torah model. Each chavrusa agrees on an area of study that interests both participants.
“It’s not just picking two names out of a hat but is a very specific process, like matchmaking,” says Levine. “For example, we’ll pair a lawyer with a lawyer. Our retention is 100 percent, but it does happen that the chemistry is not there between partners. In that case, we have a pool of mentors to make the best match.”
If the mentors are already versed in Torah learning, what do they get from the experience? “On a basic level, the insights that you get when you teach Torah to someone else and actually say it and explain it – rather than just reading it – gives us a much deeper clarity in our own Torah learning,” Levine says.
The traditional chavrusa is considered the elite level of learning among great Torah scholars, a traditional style that originated in the 18th-century Lithuanian yeshivot.
“With the back-and-forth in the chavrusa, there’s a sharpening of understanding,” Levine says. “Like polishing a diamond, you need friction between the stones to get a clear polish. That will happen whether your partner is very experienced or not. Everyone knows how to ask a question, and the partners are very smart people: they’re not going to buy just anything you say unless there’s real truth to it. The very nature of learning, especially Talmud learning, is questions and answers, questions and answers, until the point is refined.”
On a more general level, infusing Orthodox Waterbury with Jews from across the denominational spectrum is a good thing, according to Levine.
“Our community is more or less homogenous in the sense that everyone is religious, to varying degrees,” he says. “So the fact that we get to reach out to and interact with other Jews in Connecticut gives us the brotherly satisfaction of Kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh – we are all one family.”
Levine says that the study room is a judgment-free zone, with a focus on Torah rather than on religion or religiosity. While some less religious Jews may feel insecure or embarrassed about their comparative lack of Torah background, Levine says that fear is even stronger on the part of the mentors.
“Nobody wants to offend anyone or be put in a position to make someone feel uncomfortable,” he says. “We don’t feel superior, but there is a kind of stigma associated with religious Jews coming together with non-religious Jews and I think both sides of the fence are overly sensitive to that. When you come in the room and situation across from your learning partner, you realize that there’s so much common ground that it diffuses everything and the focus becomes on the Torah and friendships and mutual respect.”
Waterbury native Gary Broder, an attorney, was raised in a Conservative family and has been active in the local Jewish community. He learned about CTC and attended the first session, returning every week since and nurturing a new interest in Talmud. “Connecticut Torah Connection gives a different perspective,” he says. “In addition, I’ve established a good relationship with my chavrusa and I have a great deal of respect for him. I think the program is a great idea. It has impacted people who otherwise would not have exposure to this type of Torah study.”
CTC organizers hope to expand the program not only in reach, but in activities like lectures and seminars, youth programs, and even missions to Israel and European Jewish communities. Levine would like to eventually set up satellite locations around the state.
“Our vision is to bring together hundreds of Jews in Torah learning,” he says. “The hardest part is to get someone in the room. Our ‘sales pitch’ is that you’ve got to try it once. We have not had anyone who came once and didn’t come back.”
For more information visit ctconnection.org or call (860) 785-4CTC.