More than 100 men and women poured into Jeffrey Resnick’s Woodmere home on Sunday in a bid to combine the inspirational power of two Jewish organizations —Partners in Torah and Birthright.
The goal of the combined effort of these two organizations is to provide an opportunity to students inspired by Birthright to sign up to continue learning about their Jewish heritage before they leave Israel.
Sunday’s event was led by Rabbi Eli Gewirtz, founder and national director of Partners in Torah, and the Orthodox Union Chairman and former President Stephen Savitsky.
Partners in Torah, an affiliate of Torah Umesorah, is a free program that links Jews seeking to learn more about their heritage to more knowledgeable Torah trainers or mentors, with ongoing study by phone or Skype for up to an hour a week. Since its beginning 21 years ago, more than 58,000 have participated in the program, said Gewirtz.
Savitsky, a Woodmere resident, said the “concept of people in communities learning Torah with an unaffiliated Jew … can change your whole approach to life.” He took his challenge to different shuls in the neighborhood, recruiting mentors, rallying listeners and ultimately enlisting 125 Five Towners to join his effort to teach Torah on the phone.
“The results are incredible,” said Savitsky. “A fantastic relationship is built up between the Orthodox and these people. It breaks down the barriers between affiliated and non-affiliated people. I’ve seen it myself — hundreds teaching Torah to those not well versed in Jewish life.”
“The purpose is to prevent intermarriage, to change the results of the Pew report,” he said.
“This summer more than 1,200 are going to Israel” on Birthright, he continued. “The goal is to have mentors ready when they come back. Not just a teacher, a match with someone in the field they are interested in to strengthen them.”
Birthright, partially funded by the Jewish Agency, is open to people between the ages of 18 and 26 who were either never in Israel or were in Israel once. Birthright participants become “more affiliated and develop a close relationship to Israel and the Jewish people” as a result of their visit to Israel.
Many participants feel a void when they come back, said Savitsky. Noting that the Pew report on the status of Jews in America records a 70 percent intermarriage rate among unaffiliated Jews, he said, “We don’t have the manpower to deal with the numbers of people out there, we don’t have enough kiruv workers.”
“The only way to make a meaningful difference is to recruit average Orthodox men and women regardless of what they are doing (in their careers). If they are willing to give a half hour to an hour once a week to learn on the phone with a Jewish neshoma (soul), they can instill the love for the Jewish people and religion and hopefully (they will) become more traditional to their approach to Judaism and marry Jews.”
One Partners in Torah participant, Daniel Stern, spoke at the breakfast about his experience. He heard about Partners through Birthright and wanted to continue learning.
“Birthright has a fantastic track record for inspiring while in Israel,” stressed Gerwirtz, but there is “virtually no followup. They come back inspired but lose the inspiration, [with] no ongoing personal relationship with a role model. That’s the purpose of the [Partners] program.”
“Every mentor said that they got more out of the experience than the partners,” Savitsky said, noting that mentoring someone else is the antidote for those who are Torah observant but sometimes feel empty and uninspired; even if they go to shul and learn daf yomi, they “need a spark,” he said.
When Stavisky asks shul members to join, their excuse is “I don’t know enough.” He replies, “How could you not know enough? You live it every day. If they ask you questions you don’t know the answers to, why don’t you ask yourself those questions? It’s a win for the teachers and a win for the students.”
When Cindy Rotkowitz was in Hunter College, she went on a Birthright trip and came back inspired — but “I didn’t have an outlet to continue learning.” Her high school friend spent a year learning in Israel and invited Cindy for her first taste of Shabbat, and she was hooked.
“It opened my eyes, how could I not have this in my life?” asked Cindy. She had further Shabbat invitations and in response to her questions was guided to Partners in Torah. Her chevruta-learning partner, Bracha Krausz from Monsey, has become a close friend, and their learning is going strong after four years. Cindy is Shomer Shabbat and kashrut and continued at her job with a major news organization that was understanding of her change in status to Sabbath observer.
“Partners in Torah changed my life,” she said, noting that she wasn’t able to attend seminary in Israel but accomplished a lot learning with Partners in Torah. “I have a lot more to learn. I look forward to continuing the journey,” she said.