Jews Returning to Religion with Help of Mentor Program

When Joey Quattromini went to his neighbor’s house for a Chanukah gathering, he was not prepared for what he was about to learn.

Quattromini, who was raised Roman Catholic, discovered that in fact he is Jewish.

While at the gathering, the 18-year-old’s Presbyterian-raised neighbor revealed that she had only recently found out that she was born Jewish.

Soon after, Quattromini’s mother casually revealed that she, too, was Jewish, shocking her son and others at the gathering.

With this revelation came a new identity. Quattromini began wearing tzitzit and a kipah while attending Mass at his Catholic high school.

He also enrolled in Partners in Torah, an organization that promotes one-on-one study of Judaism across the United States.

“Jews all across North America are hungry for a no-strings-attached forum to learn about their heritage,” said Rabbi Eli Gerwitz, national director of Partners in Torah. “Many grew up just completely ignorant of their Jewish heritage.”

While only some 5 percent of participants never knew that they were Jewish, many had a very limited understanding of their religion and culture, according to Gerwitz.

“I couldn’t even tell you a letter on a dreidel” before joining Partners in Torah, said Sharon Leinkram, 37. “When I opened the first [Hebrew] book, I opened it like an English book.”

Leinkram, who teaches English as a second language in Passaic, N.J., heard about the organization from her sister-in-law, who had been a participant.

After two years, Leinkram knows the Hebrew alphabet and holidays. She now studies the parshah, the weekly Torah portion.

“What I read has meaning to me now,” she said. Judaism has “filled a void that I didn’t know was there. It became a lot more important to me than I thought it would.”

Most program participants are in their 20s to 40s and are single or young marrieds.

“Once you start being exposed to the depths of Judaism as an adult, it really draws you in some more,” said Mark Werber, 41, a trial lawyer who studies at the Dallas branch of Partners in Torah.

But “I don’t think I’d be so likely to look at the Torah portion if my partner wasn’t there waiting for me,” he added.

For one hour a week, each student learns with a personal mentor. The mentors are all volunteers.

“It pairs people who know more about Judaism with people who want to know more,” said Shalom Polen, 39, a real estate investor and mentor in Maryland.

“He didn’t have any Judaism background at all,” Polen said of his student, Andy Fink, a recent high school graduate. “He had seen an ad about Partners in Torah. From this program, he gained this thirst for Judaism and Israel.”

The children of intermarried couples are growing up without a clear religious identity, said Gerwitz. “They will be seeking to find out more about their roots.

“Some will take on personal Jewish observations, some will feel the need for intense Jewish study,” Gerwitz said.

At Partners in Torah, “they will have an address where they feel comfortable.”

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