The popular saying, “There is no time like the present,” has never been more apropos than right now. At a time when work and personal schedules have shifted, there is an opportunity to extend ourselves in ways that matter. Enter Emet Outreach’s TorahConnect, the chavrusa-based learning initiative for the Queens community. The program debuted back in November and was designed as a forum where Emet students of varying Jewish backgrounds were paired with members of the community to connect, share Torah thoughts, and elevate their learning. The first months of the in-person learning initiative were met with eagerness and enthusiasm. Women’s weekly learning sessions were held in YCQ, and were soon followed by men’s beis midrash-style learning at Beth Gavriel Bukharian Jewish Center. The goal was to expand on these chavrusa relationships and encourage deeper involvement in each other’s lives. Everything was proceeding as planned, and then plans changed with COVID-19.
“TorahConnect really got off to a promising start for both men and women,” said Rabbi Akiva Rutenberg, Emet Co-Founder and Director. “We took special care to pair community mentors and students who were compatible and on a similar wavelength. The result was energized learning sessions that our participants looked forward to and real relationships were formed.”
While COVID may have derailed life as we knew it, it actually provided a boost for participation in TorahConnect. “Suddenly, people had time they didn’t expect, and could reassess their priorities and what is meaningful in life,” said Rabbi Rutenberg. “There is nothing more vital and grounding in challenging times than Torah study. The situation has made our program that much more relevant, and we’ve had more volunteer mentors who are true role models. The ease of transferring learning sessions to the phone or video conference has also made it accessible.”
To date, there are 30 pairs of women’s chavrusos and 65 sets of chavrusos from the men’s division. The numbers are growing each week. Participants are as varied as the Queens community. On the Emet side, the majority are public school graduates who are filling the gaps in their Jewish education. There are undergraduate college students, as well as an assortment of young professionals, including pharmacists, engineers, dentists, and physician assistants. The mentor side is comprised of established community members ranging from rabbis, teachers, and Chofetz Chaim Kollel members to business professionals and community activists.
The TorahConnect program is grouped into eight-week sessions where each chavrusa selects a topic of study that suits its areas of interest and abilities. For the women, the topics have included Jewish ethics, Jewish history, weekly parshah, T’hilim, and t’filah. The majority of the men have opted for Gemara and are delving into their very first daf, whereas others are exploring works of musar such as Chovos HaL’vavos. During the course of the semester, Emet hosts Zoom lectures for the extended group to keep everyone connected.
What was once a set evening of weekly learning has also become more flexible and frequent. There are actually two men’s chavrusos who learn almost every night. Distance is also not a factor. Eli Wasser, an especially dedicated mentor, has continued learning with his chavrusa while temporarily relocating to Canada, and even plans to maintain the connection when his family moves to Louisville, Kentucky.
“TorahConnect has far exceeded our expectations in terms of participation and commitment,” said Mrs. Rivka Muskat, Emet’s Associate Director. “Each week, new pairs begin their learning journey, and our partners appreciate the relationships they are building and the power of consistent, textual learning.”
In terms of the impact, Emet’s students have been happy to express their appreciation. Sara Zargarova said, “My experience with TorahConnect has been amazing! I’ve learned so much about relationships, communication, and spirituality. I’m so glad I was paired up with a partner who is willing to teach me and open up about her own experiences. TorahConnect brought me closer to Hashem in so many ways and I’m very grateful for it.”
Eddy Kushmakov, noted, “The TorahConnect program is remarkable. The one-on-one learning tailors the content to your interests and helps you connect with and understand Judaism’s intricacies and complexities. I cannot recommend it enough.”
Shlomo M., a mentor who is learning with two chavrusos, summed it up: “I feel so fortunate to be involved with this program. TorahConnect embodies all that Emet stands for – growth, commitment, and an overarching sense of responsibility for the broader community.”
Visit www.emetoutreach.org for further information on Emet programs and weekly class schedules.