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Out of synagogue, Jewish teachers reach eager but busy students

Rabbi Micha’ael Rosenberg led a discussion about the Talmud at a Boston law firm.Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

On a recent rain-soaked morning, pre-rush hour traffic splashed along Boston’s Atlantic Avenue. In a law firm seven stories up, a small group gathered around a table to discuss fair compensation for injury — according to the Talmud.

Rabbi Micha’ael Rosenberg, a professor of rabbinics at Hebrew College, led an intricate discussion of Jewish law, focusing on a category of damage particularly difficult to quantify: embarrassment.

“When the Mishna tells us, ‘It’s all according to the humiliator and the humiliated,’ ” Rosenberg said, referring to the first section of the Talmud, “what do you think that means?”

The class, “An Eye for an Eye — Or an Undisclosed Amount of Cash,” offered by Hebrew College’s Downtown Learning program, is part of a recent proliferation of Jewish adult education outside synagogues and other Jewish institutions. Rabbis and Jewish educators say they are responding to the needs of busy people struggling to shoehorn wisdom and spiritual growth into their day.

Some offerings are, as one student put it, like having a personal trainer for your soul.


In the age of Uber and Airbnb, synagogues and educational institutions are placing an unprecedented emphasis on flexibility and choice, in some cases allowing people to choose the location, topics of study, meeting times, and even the other students.

Rabbi Yosef Zaklos, who launched Chabad of Downtown Boston three years ago, spends many of his weekdays shuttling among downtown office buildings, offering concierge Torah study to busy executives at their convenience.

“Where a personal trainer helps you with the body, he helps you with the soul,” said Scott Levy, senior managing director at David Landau & Associates, an accounting consultancy, who meets with Zaklos about once a week.

He said Zaklos offered support when his father became ill, and the rabbi challenged him to rethink his approach to a difficult business matter. Over time, Levy said, “it’s a deeper relationship that’s evolved.”


The classes in Jewish texts, history, culture, and spirituality are partly a response to a trend that Jewish leaders consider an urgent concern: A rise in secularism that is threatening Jewish identity in America.

In a major survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, more than 20 percent of Jewish Americans described themselves as having no religion; one-third of millennials described themselves that way, compared with just 7 percent of those in the Greatest Generation.

The survey noted that, although there is a long tradition of secular Judaism in America, more than two-thirds of nonreligious Jews are raising their children with no Jewish identity at all, religious or cultural.

So Jewish leaders are seeking ways to reverse that trend. Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, has long championed adult Jewish education as a catalyst for building and strengthening ties to Judaism. Making it accessible is key, he said.

Ronnie Levin (center) and Richard Daynard attended an early morning discussion about the Talmud led by Rabbi Micha’ael Rosenberg (right) at Goulston & Storrs law firm.Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

“What you’re doing is you’re looking for every setting you can possibly find that will expand the network of Jewish learners, spreading a message that Jewish learning is not your third-grade Hebrew school teacher — it’s as glorious as anything you learned in college that all of a sudden caught your attention and became the focus of your life,” he said.

Combined Jewish Philanthropies is backing the Boston pilot of a San Francisco Bay-area startup called Kevah, which helps people build their own Jewish learning communities.


People who sign up as hosts invite friends or acquaintances to form a study group, and Kevah helps match the group with an educator, usually a rabbi or scholar. Kevah groups are often people with common demographics or areas of interest — parents from the same town who are interested in child-rearing, for example, or lawyers interested in studying the Talmud.

Sara Bamberger, founder and executive director, said Kevah groups complement more traditional courses, offering “a more boutique, customized approach that really resonates with people [aged], say, 25 to 50, who are accustomed to this sharing economy, and a much higher degree of choice.”

Ben Ginsburg, 25, hosts a Kevah group at his Brighton home with about eight other people in their 20s and 30s. The topic is peace and conflict in Jewish thought; a recent class focused on the biblical story of Cain and Abel. They meet at 8 p.m. Thursdays — that’s when everyone is free.

“It allows us to pick the topic, the educator, when we’re meeting, and who’s in the group,” Ginsburg said. “Afterward, we’ll just eat snacks and chat.”

The Pew study underscored the need for Jewish leaders to reach the millennial generation, said Rabbi William G. Hamilton of Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline.

“We are going to talk with these folks wherever they are,” Hamilton said. “We find they are very hungry, very interested.”

Temple Israel’s Riverway Project offers Torah study in neighborhood coffee shops around the city once a month. Food and drink are free, and Rabbi Matt Soffer brings a couple of milk crates filled with bibles for the discussion.


“There was a time, decades ago, when all we needed to do was open the door and people would walk in,” Soffer said. “Those days are over.”

Hebrew College’s Eser program, which brings small-group Jewish learning to living rooms and kitchen tables of the under-40 set, saw its enrollment more than double from the first to the second year, said Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, president of Hebrew College. A group of young adults is involved with recruiting and designing the classes, he said.

The college’s Downtown Learning classes target the power breakfast crowd, serving up early morning courses at downtown and Back Bay office buildings with highly regarded professors.

They are free and open to anyone, but they tend to attract busy professionals who are already active in a synagogue and enjoy advanced classes in Jewish studies, but struggle to find time to fit them in.

“The goal is really to make sophisticated, compelling Jewish learning accessible in terms of time and place for people’s workdays, and also to set the Jewish learning in the context of their real work lives,” Lehmann said.

Jack Eiferman, a lawyer in his firm’s corporate health care practice who serves on the board of Hebrew College, has taken several Downtown Learning classes, including Rosenberg’s course and another on the biblical concept that humans are created in the image of God. He says he has noticed that the lessons tend to follow him throughout the workday and workweek.


“You relate to people in a slightly different way, understanding what some people call ‘the dignity of difference,’ ” he said. “It’s not my way or the highway.”

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lisa.wangsness@globe.com.