The inaugural Torah Winter Learning Event (TWLE), provided a rare opportunity for young adults in the Long Beach & Orange County area to spend time looking seriously at and discussing Jewish texts. Here is one such young person, Laura Wiley, with her experience of the event:
Whenever people ask me, “Wait, so you’re Jewish?” my response is always the same. “Oh, I’m super Jewish.” To which they laugh. And, of course, I have to explain myself because I’m not wearing a kippah or a talit or tzitzit. Not that I would be wearing the latter because I’m female, but regardless I’m wearing a low-cut V-neck and a pair of jeans, so clearly I’m not in the more religious sects. When I say ‘super Jewish’ I mean that I have spent my life immersed in the Jewish culture and community.
I went to Jewish summer camps as a young girl, then became involved in the Bureau of Jewish Education of Orange County and moved up through their programming. At my temple, I used to help out with Sunday School classes as well as play piano at services and to accompany the junior choir. In college, I became very involved with Beach Hillel as president and also began volunteering with the Alpert JCC. One of the things I’ve learned from being involved with Jews from so many walks of life is that it is really difficult to get young Jews to pay attention when the subject is Torah.
Jews in their twenties love going to Shabbat dinners or Shabbatons or any holiday party where there is drinking involved, but the second “learning” is mentioned, people sprint for the door. Of course, there are always those that love to talk about Torah all night, but that group is a tad smaller than those at the Shabbat table hoping they’ll find a potential candidate for schmoozing or dating.
So how do you get them interested in Torah? This is what Rabbi Drew Kaplan from Southern California Jewish Student Services (SoCalJSS) is working on. He created a new event, the Inaugural Torah Winter Learning Event (TWLE), to inspire students and young professionals to come out and socialize and learn about Torah. Starting on January 19th and finishing on the 21st, Rabbi Drew led a series of mini-events to bring in people who were interested in learning…and interested in free food. It also didn’t hurt that one of the events was called “Beer, Bible, and Baked Goods.” I mean, if you can’t get people by putting beer in the title I don’t know how else you get them somewhere! Events ranged from a Tu b’Shevat Seder with Beach Hillel to a road trip to LA for Jeff’s sausages. All of the events were centered around a theme, the Ten Commandments.
“The idea behind selecting the topic of the Ten Commandments for TWLE 2011 was simply that it occurred during that week’s Torah portion,” says Rabbi Drew. “As such a significant topic as the Ten Commandments is, there is seldom an opportunity to go through them in-depth for young Jewish adults.” At the “Beer, Bible, and Baked Goods” event, I remember Rabbi Drew asked us what the Ten Commandments were in order and, after many confused looks and some debating, we finally got the list down. It’s surprising that something so elementary can still be foggy for many of us. Having an event like this is important because Torah can be overwhelming when you’ve been away from it for a while. It’s nice to have a refresher course in the basics.
“I learned a lot about the Ten Commandments and met a lot of interesting people,” says Reina Victoria, a CSUF alum, who went up to LA with Rabbi Drew for Jeff’s sausages. “I enjoyed good food and interesting conversation and, of course, a yummy pastrami burger…. Rabbi Drew and Rachel are warm and welcoming, and I felt very much at home.”
The goal is not just to put butts in the seats, but rather to inspire people to want to learn. The hope is that by making these events interesting, people will want to further their knowledge about their own heritage. Of course, it’s hard to get college students to learn about something when there’s no credit involved, which is why Rabbi Drew tries to make the discussion fun and casual. Another great way he incorporates this element is by having guest speakers who come and give stories of personal application to these topics.
I personally enjoyed the Friday morning event at the Alpert JCC where we ate Krispy Kremes and talked about the fourth commandment, keeping Shabbat. We had a wonderful speaker, Rabbi Dov Fischer, who talked about his relationship with his family and how it was strengthened through Shabbat. He also allowed us to share our background with the event and what it meant to us. Being one of those people who are resistant to learn about Torah, I enjoyed the fact that he cleverly made Torah the subtext. It’s always fun to learn when you don’t know you’re doing it!
Rabbi Fischer also spoke on Thursday afternoon on American & Jewish Law, as he is a lawyer and a rabbi. Another speaker was Chaya Leah Sufrin, who lead a discussion on the first three commandments and the fifth, honoring one’s mother and father.
Rabbi Drew also brought in Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz to lead a discussion on Judaism & Vegetarianism over lunch on Thursday. “It was a really good lecture and, as a vegetarian, I really enjoyed learning about the place of vegetarianism in Judaism,” says CSULB student Nitzan Harel who attended the Judaism & Vegetarianism event. “I think Rabbi Shmuly is a fantastic speaker and I like how he fit vegetarianism and Judaism together. It was interesting for me to meet a Rabbi who is vegetarian, since I had never met one before (I didn’t know they existed :)).”
The best part of having an event like this with so many mini-events mixed in is that there’s something for everyone. Through incorporating so many different approaches Rabbi Drew was able to attract a variety of college students and young professionals, including some non-Jews! “The idea of having TWLE 2011,” says Rabbi Drew, “was meeting more and more students who were earnestly interested in studying our Jewish heritage and holding it during winter break while nothing much else is going on for them.” After a successful run, he will no doubt see an even bigger turnout for the next Torah Learning event.