I N P R I N T
Cappuccino, latte, Americano, Talmud: Spot the odd one out
By ADAM ROSS
07/18/2013 21:53 Jerusalem Post
Photo by: ADAM ROSS
At the Pierre Koenig Street end of Jerusalem’s coffee mile, the Emek Learning Center has opened for business, adding a community kollel to the restaurants, coffee shops, bars and boutique jewelry stores of Emek Refaim Street.
Sitting above what was once a bridal store and is now a state-of-the art audio outlet, the center consists of an open-plan beit midrash (hall for Judaic studies), an adjoining classroom, and office space, with an oakcolored ark and floor-to-ceiling bookshelf adding a warm contrast to the freshly painted white walls.
The community kollel model, in which men are paid to study Torah and which offers educational opportunities for the local community as well, is a popular one in English-speaking countries, especially the US.
The ELC project stemmed from the generosity of a local resident who, adamant about retaining his anonymity, approached the former head of the Mevaseret Zion Yeshiva to turn his shekels into the community learning center of which he had dreamed.
Rabbi Azarya Berzon heads the center alongside Rabbi Shalom Myers, who was previously with the Ohr Somayach Yeshiva. Berzon has also held senior teaching posts at the Lander College for Men and hesder yeshivot in Ma’aleh Adumim and Sha’alvim, and he was most recently a joint head of the Yeshiva University Kollel in Toronto.
The two men have recruited 10 scholars who, with their families, are the backbone of the center’s vision. They will continue to learn Halacha during the day while building a study schedule with community members, whom the ELC’s website invites to “drop in for a spontaneous hevruta [Torah study session with a partner].”
Berzon has led the way, moving with his family from the city’s Har Nof neighborhood to put himself fully behind the project. The majority of the families involved are also planning to move into the German Colony area, if they have not already done so.
“The idea is to create more of a community-style place to come and learn and pray,” he says. “We have seen the polarization of Jews recently, and many have become disenfranchised. The idea here is to reinstill a love of Jewish learning.”
The center opened the week after Passover and has so far enjoyed a steady increase in foot traffic. Locals drop in to study throughout the day – including on Shabbat – and there is good attendance at the center’s evening classes for both men and women and at occasional special events. Last week, well over 100 people packed into the center for a joint event with the Eretz Hemdah Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies and the Shir Hadash congregation, to hear octogenarian Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld – a close student of the late Rabbi Joseph B.
Soloveitchik – speak about his memories of the renowned founder and head of Yeshiva University.
Ricky Burstein, who moved to Israel from Sydney five years ago, is a regular at ELC during the week and one of 40 to 50 regulars on Shabbat morning. A financial controller living in Katamon, he comes for prayers and shiurim (lectures) over Shabbat, as well as one evening during the week.
“Other than yeshiva, it’s the first time I’ve felt that I’m part of a community,” he says. “Everyone is there because they want to be there. The place is orientated very strongly around a love of Torah, people and the Land of Israel, and it’s a very friendly place. People are greeted, which is not something you find everywhere in other places I’ve been to.”
Yochana Sandler, an artist and stay-at-home mom originally from New Haven, Connecticut, is also attracted by the welcoming atmosphere, which includes homemade baked goods at the weekly parasha (Torah portion) and hassidic thought shiur she attends.
“There’s a warm, out-of-town feeling, and the rabbis and their families give 100 percent,” she says. “We live in Kiryat Shmuel, around a 20-minute walk away, and hadn’t found a community there. It was the No. 1 priority for us to find a community that we could be a part of and give to as well.”
Adam Winston, originally from Richmond, Virginia, is one of the center’s educators and has moved with his wife and daughter to the German Colony.
He studied at the Netivot Aharon Yeshiva in the city’s Geula neighborhood after being discharged from the IDF, where he served as a sofer (scribe) in the army rabbinate.
“I’m not just a day student. My family and I have moved here, and it’s likely that our children will grow up and go to schools in this neighborhood. We’re here to be part of the community,” he says.
Josh Gerstein, who previously studied in the Old City’s Orayta Yeshiva, is another new recruit and is already feeling the vision of the center taking shape.
“Today’s challenge is all about the love of every Jew, and that’s not something that can really be achieved in a closed community where everyone is the same. On a Shabbat morning, you’ll find a wide mix of backgrounds and kippot, including knitted, velvet and a sprinkling of Chabad Hassidim. There are also several people who would probably not describe themselves in religious terms. It’s a comfortable place to be,” he says as he prepares to meet with Ebin, a freelance lawyer who comes to the center three times a week to study Talmud.
The increase in Jewish study and religious social events in Katamon, Baka and the German Colony has led social media entrepreneur Benjy Singer to set up Myshteiblech, a website and Facebook page bringing together the various activities in the area. As long as the generosity of the ELC’s nameless benefactor doesn’t run out, Singer says the center has the ingredients to succeed.
“The spoken language is English, davening [praying] on Shabbat is very tuneful and there is always a nice kiddush afterward. I can see the ELC as fulfilling a major function in serving new immigrants or Anglo retirees in the Baka/ Katamon community,” he says.
Aside from the learning, the rabbis hope the center and the families who are part of it will have a positive impact on those looking for relationships.
“It’s a serious issue, and many people think it’s someone else’s problem. We need a people’s army, looking out for each other and making good suggestions, getting to know people well, their characters and what they are looking for. With our kollel families opening their homes to the community, I hope it can make a difference,” says Myers.
On Emek Refaim Street these days, the wide variety of coffee, fruit shakes and burgers is a sign of the times – in which the consumer can pick exactly what he or she wants. To judge by the reactions, the Emek Learning Center appears to be just the cup of tea that many in the Anglo community are seeking.