What Works: A Torah Class That Lasts


Torah study class, December, 13, 2011.

Every Tuesday, Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, New York holds a unique adult-ed Torah study class. It’s taught by the rabbi emeritus, Rabbi Adam Fisher, from 6:30 A.M. to 7:30 A.M. And it’s still going strong after 23 years.

“When a congregant, David Altman, suggested we have a Torah study class,” Rabbi Fisher recalls, “I thought no one would come, but I agreed, not wanting to miss an opportunity for Torah study. Our initial group of four began with the Mekilta, which is a midrash on the Book of Exodus. We went on to Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Pirke Avot [Ethics of Our Fathers], Talmud, and Reform responsa [authoritative replies to questions concerning Jewish law and life from a Reform perspective]; nowadays we’re alternating between the Haftarot and Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs’ Jewish Thought Today.

“The texts are serious, but we have a very freewheeling discussion about them, raising questions and considering contemporary understandings. For example, while following the Haftarah from Isaiah 51-52 for Shoftim, we read Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut’s commentary on how Jerusalem [the geographic name for the city] and Zion [the spiritual name for the city] came to be so important to Jewish consciousness through the ages, and we considered the validity of the various Christian, Muslem, and Jewish claims to the city today. One man opined that, within Islam, the sole claim to the city is that Mohammed made a stop there before ascending to Heaven. I responded that if there is to be peace, all three faiths will need to put their own narratives aside and deal with the current reality.”

The class is limited to 15 people, Rabbi Fisher says, “because of the importance of discussion and the wonderful group chemistry.” About 12 to 13 attend each week. “People like coming at 6:30 A.M.,” he says, “because the early hour frees the day and evening, and allows those who work to get there on time. Moreover, I think participants feel the discussion is valuable for their lives. I know this is true for me.”

The course also serves as a testament to a model relationship between rabbis and rabbis emeriti. “When Rabbi Stephen A. Karol succeeded me in 2002,” Rabbi Fisher says, “I made it clear to the congregation that ‘Rabbi Karol is the rabbi of the congregation and my rabbi now.’ He graciously asked me to continue teaching the class, and I have done so, but have never discussed any congregational business or rendered any opinions about congregational matters. No one has ever attempted to get me to cross that line, and if on occasion a member of the congregation asks me to officiate at a wedding or funeral, I direct him/her to speak to Rabbi Karol first. And whenever appropriate, Rabbi Karol includes me in congregational events.”

Union for Reform Judaism.