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Teaching Torah by the Trail Mix

A 28-year-old struggling writer walks up to a checkout counter at Whole Foods. “Where is the Torah study?” he asks.

“Oh, the class with the rabbi? That’s in the back, near the nuts.”

The clerk wasn’t being pejorative—the Torah study really is in the back, near the bulk bins of nuts and trail mix. I should know: I’m the nut teaching Torah in the grocery store every Wednesday.

In my 20-plus years as a Jewish educator, I never dreamt I’d be teaching Torah in a supermarket. But, then again, I’m pretty sure the two dozen or so students who regularly participate in the class never thought they’d be studying Jewish text each week, let alone doing so surrounded by organic Swiss chard.

Our eclectic group of students is growing. The 40-something moms attend after yoga or in the midst of shopping. A few out-of-work men and women fill their now-empty schedules with lunch and conversation. At least six grandmothers add their wisdom. Some in the group aren’t Jewish. Of those who are, we have temple members (my congregation or another), unaffiliated Jews, twice-a-year Jews, minyan makers, and lifetime adult learners.

There is nothing new in all this. When the Israelites returned from Baby-lonian exile in 537 B.C.E. and rebuilt the Temple, Ezra the Scribe noticed that the people were too busy with the pressures of the day to make time for Judaism. He decided: If the people won’t come to the Temple, I’ll bring the Temple- to them. On Mondays and Thursdays—the two market days, when the most people were transacting business, meeting, and greeting in the town square—Ezra stood in the street and read Torah out loud to a people- who had all but -forgotten their own story-. From this seminal moment in our history sprang the practice of reading the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays that continues in synagogues to this day.

The Bible tells us that the people gathered around Ezra to listen as he read and translated the text, “giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read” (Nehemiah 8:8). The people engaged with the sacred text and with one another.

Millennia later, public space Judaism is again an emerging trend.

I began my own work in this field as a congregational rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, California, inspired by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s teaching: In a place where you can be Jewish anywhere, we should grasp the opportunity to be Jewish everywhere.

Torah study at Whole Foods soon expanded to a host of Jewish events. On Sukkot our youth group built a sukkah on Whole Foods’ outdoor patio, allowing diners to fulfill the mitzvah of lashav b’sukkah, of dwelling in the sukkah. A banner explained the structure as “a replica of a biblical hut built by Jewish farmers to live and eat in as they harvested their crop. It celebrates the land and gives thanks for the food it produces.”

We nurtured a mutually beneficial relationship with the store manager and staff. Employees asked our rabbis about Jewish observances, and the store generously sponsored food and activities at temple events, such as our Purim carnival.

A year later, the relationship had solidified to the point that the store manager invited our congregation to lead a menorah lighting at Hanukkah time. At that moment I knew that we’d not only engaged Jews beyond our shul’s walls; we had changed the public face of Judaism in our community.

We expanded our outreach. We led PJ Library events for kids in pajamas at local bookstores. We sponsored play dates and Jewish crafts projects at indoor play spaces. On the opening weekend of the youth soccer season, which fell between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we pitched an EZ-up tent near the snack vendors and team tents, handing out free apples and honey sticks and wishing all passersby a “Shanah Tovah, Happy New Year!” For the unaffiliated it was outreach; we had information on hand about the meaning of the High Holy Day and suggested ways to celebrate it at home or in shul. For non-Jews, we presented Judaism in a positive, non-threatening, accessible way.

Initially, some congregants expressed apprehension about our taking Judaism into public space. We talked with them about our goals and approach, and invited them to watch an event. Soon, our initial critics became participants and vocal supporters. In one instance, a skeptical lay leader standing at the back of the group during PJ Library story time was so moved by the experience, she brought her granddaughter the next month and then signed up to be a storyteller. Months later she was chairing the program!

These days, I am a congregational rabbi at Temple Sholom in the close-knit, vibrant Jewish community of Vancouver, British Columbia. The population mix is a bit different, but the need to reach beyond the walls is equally imperative. For Jewish communities like Vancouver (26,255 Jews out of a city of 2,280,695 or 1.2%) that lack great Jewish population density, public space Judaism is a bit like online dating: If you want to meet someone, you need to let people know you’re looking.

How do we accomplish this? My colleague Rabbi Carey Brown teaches a Talmud class for millennials in a local coffee shop once a month; I teach a text based Jewish current events discussion downtown at lunchtime in an office boardroom. Both classes are widely promoted, easily accessible to the public and well attended. Ringing in the 2014 year, we led a Shabbat service and Havdallah at Whistler Blackcomb, the nearby mountain ski resort that’s popular with Jews throughout the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada. Our promotion said: “We know you won’t be in shul this weekend, so we’ll bring shul to you. Just bring an entrée and, if you can, a friend or two.” More than 60 people came to the dinner and service, including two Jewish families vacationing from the East Coast who’d been walking by our banquet room in the hotel lobby when they spotted our sign and heard our joyful singing. About 45 people showed up the following evening for a Havdallah service; afterwards the room was electric with everyone talking about how wonderful it was to connect with a larger Jewish community while on vacation and brainstorming how we might do this again. Also, a few local Jewish families asked us if we could help educate their remote community. We now have plans to bring Hebrew school and family education to them.

When the rain and snow subside and the sun shines gloriously on Vancouver’s beaches, the locals congregate by the water for BBQs and sunsets and our congregation leads relaxing, open Shabbat services on the beach. We unfurl a huge banner and post signs welcoming all who wish to join us. And, like at Whole Foods, they come—Jews and “Jew curious,” those who caught our ads in the local alternative free papers and those just passing by.

Howard Schultz, the man who developed Starbucks Coffee’s identity, famously explained his business model as trying to create a “third place” between work and home where people could gather and feel they belonged.

For generations the synagogue was that third place for Jews. On Friday nights, temple was the gathering and hangout place for the Jewish community. We Jews showed up for a myriad of reasons, but mostly we gathered to see each other. As the old joke goes:

Goldberg comes to synagogue every Shabbes morning. All of a sudden Schwartz starts coming.

This goes on without interruption for weeks, until one Saturday at the -Kiddush, the rabbi approaches Schwartz: “For the last few weeks you’ve been here every Shabbes. Goldberg I understand—his father’s a rabbi, he reads Torah. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you’re here, but you, Schwartz—I never thought of you as religious.”

“Oh, rabbi you see, Goldberg comes to talk to God, and I, well, I come to talk to Goldberg.”

Today, Schwartz and Goldberg are a vanishing breed. More Jews are outside than inside the synagogue walls. So what are we to do?

Like most rabbis, I have tried everything short of standing on my head to get people into my shul for prayer or study. While many come, some regularly, many others don’t or won’t. It is time we also consider those who don’t even know shul is an option. We can bring synagogue to them. We can meet in a third place of our own creation, filling it with meaning and a measure of yiddishkeit.

In a public space, a warm hello can lead to conversation, and conversation is the cornerstone of relationship. Our conversations often begin with a simple, “So why’d you come to this?”…and the answers have proven profound. For many young Jews walking by, hearing a familiar Jewish melody or seeing a group of Jews engaged in conversation awakens long dormant childhood memories. They tell us, “I didn’t even know I was looking for this in my life, but here you are. I don’t know if you found me or I found you, but I am glad we found each other.”

If that sounds romantic, it kind of is. Meeting Jews or those who are “Jew curious” in a market or café or by the shore has the magical quality of bumping into an old friend you haven’t seen in years. After a few awkward moments you quickly find threads of connection.

This way of outreach is qualitatively different than knocking on doors with religious texts in hand, or even enjoining Jews to wave a lulav from a Mitzvah Mobile. We enter into this work from the perspective of kiddusha, of holiness, connecting with a population on their terms as well as ours.

One group in particular was easy to find but hard to reach: Jewish men. They were everywhere in our larger community—at Little League, the gym, foundation boards…but not at synagogue.

To break through, I asked a socially connected man in my Los Angeles congregation to host a “Guys’ Night with the Rabbi” in his home. I suggested he invite anyone he wanted and encourage guys to bring a friend.

To my surprise, 23 guys showed up. When we asked them why, they answered, “Because you asked.” Note that the “you” was not me, but the guy they respected and liked who had invited them to his home. Again it was all about relationships.

We began that “Guys Night” with a simple but powerful exercise—introduce yourself without saying what you do for a living. Men so often define themselves by what they do, how they provide for their families. Our group would only work, we realized, if we could retrain ourselves to change this damaging, isolating pattern that is related to male competitiveness. We would have to see other men as brothers, each one with good things to give and to receive.

We established ground rules about confidentiality and cross talk. We decided that if a subject made a group of men uncomfortable, it was the perfect topic. In the first months we discussed “Why Do We Work So Hard?,” “What Kind Of Fathers We Had, What Kind Of Fathers We Are,” “Being a Husband: How Has Your Partner Influenced the Way You Think?,” “Power and the Male Identity.”

I always prepared a contemporary text and a Jewish text to help guide our talks, but quite soon we needed no more than a trigger to get started. Many men shared the societal pressures they feel to be both a professional and a present super dad. One man talked about how uncomfortable he was in social situations; he was particularly anxious now because his family was on the “bar/bat mitzvah circuit,” with many months of receptions and parties he’d have to navigate. A number of the guys were on the same “circuit”; I later spotted them looking out for him and acting as “wingmen” throughout the year.

One man’s father died after a long illness. The guys from the group showed up at shiva every night. Men who had not stepped foot in the synagogue other than for an occasional bar/bat mitzvah became regular minyan makers for their friend.

The group has now met for eight years. More than 60 men regularly attend. Our annual retreat at a local Jewish retreat center attracts more than 100 men. There’s also an annual Community Men’s Seder, based on a Men of Reform Judaism model, that a core group of guys lead for friends and colleagues, which is growing by the dozens every year. And many of the men who were once absent from synagogue life are now present, sitting with each other at services, serving on committees, and participating in the Whole Foods Torah study.

I attribute our success to having set “Guys’ Night with the Rabbi” at a friend’s home, so the men always had home-field advantage.

Public space Judaism has also taught me that, even in the congregational context, I need to reach out to members. If I wait for them to come to me, they might never come.

On my first day at Temple Sholom I was handed the Kaddish list for the coming Shabbat. I didn’t know any of the names, the deceased or the mourners. I was the outsider, the stranger.

I picked up the phone and started calling members who were observing yahrtzeits—well over 40 people at our 700-household congregation. Introducing myself, I explained that it would be my first time reading the name of their loved one. Could they tell me a little bit about the deceased, so I had a context for their memory as I read the name on the coming Shabbat?

One by one, congregants told me their stories. They remembered things about their parents, spouses, and siblings they hadn’t thought of in years. Tears flowed on both ends of the conversation.

When the mourners came to synagogue that week to recite Kaddish, it was easier for them to walk into the place that had been made unfamiliar because of the change of rabbis, and easier for me to stand before them. We were no longer strangers.

Many of those talks also led to my visiting members’ homes or meeting them for coffee to hear their own personal stories. Whenever possible, I set those meetings away from my synagogue office, to lower the barriers to connection even for those who were already quite comfortable in the synagogue. Like Ezra the scribe, I felt I needed to engage the people in their space, not mine.

Yes, public space Judaism is a blind date, and that takes a bit of chutzpah. It begins with the tent, the table, the phone call, a cup of coffee at Whole Foods near the nut department. But, more often than we think, like the blind date that really works out, it leads to a relationship—a relationship with other Jews and with our Jewish selves that endures.

Rabbi Dan Moskovitz is senior rabbi of Temple Sholom in Vancouver British Columbia, Canada and co-author of The MRJ Men's Seder Haggadah (MRJ Press 2007). You can follow him on twitter@rabbidanmosk.