NEW YORK (Jul. 27)
Every weekday morning, around the time most people are taking their first coffee break, Benjamin Lederer takes a half-hour away from the phone-ringing, jewel-cutting clamor of his Manhattan Diamond District office.
Quickly walking down 47th Street, he passes bearded, black-hatted traders like himself and sparkling jewelry store displays before he reaches the quieter office of an old friend from his yeshiva days.
In this makeshift sanctuary, Lederer removes his hat, pulls a Talmud tractate off the bookshelf and picks up the telephone, rapidly dialing familiar digits.
On the other end, in Denver, attorney Serge Herscovici answers, ready to practice his Hebrew skills and explore what the Talmud says about witnesses and evidence.
The two are among 550 pairs of Torah learners keeping long-distance wires buzzing with Jewish conversations, sometimes once a day, sometimes once a week.
Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, urges Jews to find a same-gender partner with which to study Torah. But it doesn’t say the study sessions have to be face to face.
So two years ago, Partners in Torah, an Orthodox-sponsored program that brings together Jews of different educational levels for weekly study in a Beit Hamidrash, developed an offshoot: Tele-Partners.
“Many people are looking to connect to Jewish life and learning, but don’t feel comfortable enough walking into a synagogue or participating in adult education programs,” explained Rabbi Eli Gevirtz, the national director of Partners in Torah.
“For them it entails a commitment which they’re not sure they’re ready to make.”
“Students,” or Jews with weaker religious backgrounds, are matched with “mentors,” observant Jews who have more extensive Jewish knowledge. Together, the two develop a course of study and schedule phone meetings at mutually convenient times.
Many of the students drawn to the program are secular or liberal Jews seeking to incorporate more tradition into their lives or are looking for Jewish insights to guide them through day-to-day concerns.
The sponsor, Torah Umesorah, the national association of Orthodox day schools, foots the phone bill, providing phone cards worth some $75,000 last year.
“We’re trying to remove all the obstacles,” said Gevirtz. “By making it as convenient as we do and by paying for the phone time, all people have to do is join in and gain as much from the sessions as they can.”
Gevirtz says Tele-Partners is growing rapidly across the country, adding approximately 10 learners each week.
Some students gravitate to Tele-Partners because the scheduling is flexible and there’s no need to travel. Others choose it because they live in small Jewish communities where few classes are offered.
Although the focus is on texts, conversations often diverge into more personal matters.
Tele-Partners tries to match people with similar interests, and selects only mentors who are “non-judgmental, enthusiastic and excited about their heritage,” said Gevirtz. The hevrutot, or pairs, often end up becoming friends as well as study partners.
“I bargained for a nice person to learn with who liked me and I liked him, who would teach me things,” said the 40-year-old Herscovici. “What I really got was a guide, friend, mentor, counselor and new family.”
Shortly after Herscovici and Lederer, 57, started studying together, the student came to New York for a business trip where he met his partner and was wowed by his hospitality.
During the whirlwind year that followed their first off-line encounter, Herscovici got married and received help from Lederer at every step of the way. Lederer invited his student for several Shabbat visits, helped him pick out a wedding ring and coordinated a pre-wedding celebration.
Jeralyn Goldman, 53, of Las Vegas, describes her phone mentor, Chana Greenblatt, as a “resource,” noting that because Greenblatt lives in the fervently Orthodox community of Monsey, N.Y., she can also consult “posekim,” or rabbinic scholars, on halachic questions that arise in their discussions.
“I feel close even though we’ve never met,” said Goldman, adding that the program is particularly popular among newly observant Jews in Las Vegas, where the Orthodox community is rapidly growing, but still relatively small.
Mentors and students praise the convenience and intimacy of the program.
Havivah Zeltzer, 30, of Boston, got involved in Tele-Partners to have a weekly “connection with Judaism.”
A professional singer, Zeltzer — who learns with 35-year-old Aliza Bulow of Long Beach, N.Y. — likes that “you can have a session of Torah without having to go anywhere” and that partners “get to know each other on a one-to-one basis.”
Mentors say that they, too, learn from the exchanges and that their students often pose questions they have never considered.
“I’ve learned I have to get my thoughts straight before I start and do some extra preparing, because he’s really brilliant and thinks sharply,” Lederer said of his partner, Herscovici.
Zeltzer’s partner, Bulow, who also learns with another student, said the experience has forced her to seek explanations for things she had just accepted on faith.
“Being forced to explain brings things from nebulous consciousness into concrete awareness,” Bulow said.
Nathan Leibster, 43, of Passaic, N.J., agreed. “It creates a whole different view of Torah when you see it through the eyes of someone for whom it’s new.”
Leibster, who mentors two people, said the experience has taught him “not to be shy about being frum,” or observant.
Although many Tele-Partners students are ba’alei teshuvah, or newly observant, Leibster stressed that the program is not about “notching holes in the belt, saying I’ve made this many ba’alei teshuvah.
“This is about creating a place where both people can grow and hopefully that leads to greater observance on both parts.”
The telephone isn’t a perfect vehicle. Participants complain that it is often easier to forget a phone appointment than a face-to-face one. They say that phone calls don’t allow for visual cues and sometimes make text study challenging.
“When you meet face to face and are geographically closer, there’s so much more follow up you can do,” Bulow said. “You can invite your learner over for Shabbas or bring over soup when they’re sick.”
But as a mother of six, the phone sessions are considerably easier to balance with other demands, she added. “You make a call at 9 and you’re finished at 10.”