Having learned with multiple students over the years, Kew Gardens Hills resident Leah Bleiberg is a veteran Partners in Torah mentor, but her chavrusa with Jen Minotti is unlike any she has ever experienced before.
A resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jen reached out to Partners in Torah in 2014. Over time, she shared with Leah that she was the descendant of a well known rabbinical family, her daughter’s name Sola a tribute to her matrilineal ancestors, the Soloveitchik family. Their weekly telephone calls have included explorations of books, speakers, and knowledge shared by Dr. David Lieberman, Esther Wein, Rabbi Akiva Tatz, and Rabbi David Fohrman. Jen, who has two master’s degrees from Columbia University and is currently working part time, has been reaching out for more Jewish learning in her hometown. The relationship between the two women actually goes far deeper than their studies: Leah has had Jen and her family for Shabbos and encouraged Jen to incorporate small bits of Yiddishkeit in her life; and when Jen’s mother passed away, Leah helped make the funeral arrangements.
Jen sees Leah, who is currently also learning with three other students, as more than just a mentor, and reported to Partners in Torah: “I hit the partner jackpot!! She’s like a mother to me – I love her!”
Orie Shapiro of Kew Gardens Hills and Eliyahu Crossin of Atlanta are another of Partners in Torah’s many success stories. Orie, an attorney, and Eliyahu, a business growth specialist, have been learning together for 17 years, and they just recently celebrated the completion of a milestone – learning through all 54 parshiyos of the Chumash, together with Rashi – a five-year-long effort. The two men are among the many Partners in Torah whose chavrusashaft has passed the double-digit mark, with a recent newsletter celebrating the “learniversaries” of over four dozen mentor-student pairs, eight of which have seen their lives enriched for more than ten years through weekly phone calls.
Leah and Jen, and Orie and Eliyahu, are among the many thousands of active pairs who enjoy once-a-week phone calls that strengthen their connections to their Jewish roots. With tens of thousands of religious awakenings fostered worldwide, it is hard to believe that Partners in Torah took its first major steps towards becoming a household name in a city known for snow-capped glaciers and Native American totem poles. But in truth, the story of Partners in Torah’s exponential growth began in the most unexpected of places – Alaska.
It was 1999 when Rabbi Eli Gewirtz received a phone call from Ron Adler, a Ketchikan social worker who wanted to expand his knowledge of Judaism but lived quite a distance from the nearest Jewish community. With a long history in the world of outreach, Rabbi Gewirtz had already launched an adult education program in Twin Rivers, New Jersey, in the 1980s, with dozens of Lakewood volunteers making the weekly 25-mile trip for an hour of one-on-one learning with local residents. After relocating to Passaic in 1993, Rabbi Gewirtz created a similar initiative in a local shul, and the idea of matching students and mentors caught fire, with additional branches popping up in other shuls, schools, and Jewish community centers. Within six years, Partners in Torah had spread to 40 locations, but the historic turning point came with Adler’s request to facilitate a long-distance learning arrangement, one that ultimately spanned a distance of nearly 3,500 miles.
“Ron’s brother was in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and was learning at one of our programs, and he wanted to participate, as well,” recalled Rabbi Gewirtz. “I matched him up with Yosef, a psychologist from Brooklyn, someone who I thought would be a good fit; and instead of learning together in person, they did it over the telephone. We reimbursed Yosef monthly for the cost of the calls and, over time, the idea of learning by telephone mushroomed beyond anything we could have ever imagined.”
The Ron and Yosef pairing was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and Partners in Torah soon found itself making shidduchim between those who wanted to find out more about Judaism and mentors who were happy to share whatever they knew, the limitations of geographic boundaries smashed to smithereens by the wonders of telecommunications. The Partners in Torah phone model worked on multiple levels: Both students and mentors loved the relative anonymity of phone learning and the flexibility of both time and subject matter, and it became abundantly clear that participants on both sides were finding themselves enriched by the experience. Fast forward to 2019, and Partners in Torah has seen over 76,000 men and women from 2,337 cities in 39 different countries learning together, touching the lives of people from all walks of life, including some well-known names. Actress Mayim Bialik reached out to Partners in Torah over ten years ago in an effort to fill an intellectual void in her life, and was paired with Allison Josephs who went on to create Jew in the City, a website dedicated to reversing negative stereotypes associated with Orthodox Judaism. As Mayim grew in her religious observance as a result of her chavrusa with Josephs, she proudly proclaimed her religious observance while playing a significant role in a hit television show, refusing to work on Jewish holidays. Mayim has said that she hopes to be an inspiration to others, as she publicly strives to balance her religious and secular lives.
Rabbi Gewirtz noted that Partners in Torah has become a vehicle that uses a mentor-student model to help all Jews build a proud, lifelong connection to Judaism. More often than not, mentors are typical members of the observant Jewish community, who, like their students, go on vacations, read books, travel, and play ball with their kids. Because they hail from all walks of life and have shared experiences with their students, they have what it takes to not only be role models but also to forge the personal connections that are essential for the student-mentor relationship.
“This isn’t about telling people how to live their lives,” explained Rabbi Gewirtz. “People who come to us are looking for a connection to their Judaism and our goal is for them to feel that they belong in the Jewish community because right now, the overwhelming majority of them do not.”
The upcoming launch of a digital platform will make relevant content and resources easily available, and Partners in Torah is poised to recruit thousands of new mentors to meet the ever-growing need of those who want to connect with their Judaism. Mentors typically sign up to learn for 30 minutes a week over a three-month period, with most extending their commitment because the experience is so rewarding.
Over 1,100 mentors have come from Queens alone, and Partners in Torah chairman Steve Savitsky hopes that that number will increase significantly in the coming weeks. Savitsky noted that mentors need not be seasoned educators, and that while learning can come from a book or a sefer, there are many other ways to explore the beauty of Judaism.
“So many of us go through life as observant Jews and never stop to think how fortunate we are to lead religious lives,” said Savitsky. “Those of us who have had the benefit of a Jewish education and a religious upbringing possess the tools to positively impact the lives of others.”
Drawing parallels to the business world, Partners in Torah COO Moe Mernick noted that much like Airbnb empowered individuals to become part of the hospitality industry by hosting people in their homes, and Uber democratized the world of transportation by giving individuals the opportunity to become paid drivers, Partners in Torah gives anyone, anywhere, the ability to ignite the flame of Torah in those who are thirsting for knowledge.
“There are millions of unaffiliated Jews in the world, and the future of Jewish education cannot rely solely on outreach professionals, the campus rabbis, and the big organizations,” said Mernick. “Any person who had the benefit of a Jewish education has the ability to impact the life of another Jew, and all it takes is 30 minutes a week to light up their world. Just imagine what could happen if each of us, as well as our family members, neighbors, and friends looked inside ourselves and decided to share the beauty, depth, and relevance of Torah with another Jew – we could literally change the course of Jewish history.”
Learn with a fellow Jew for 30 minutes a week and help shape the Jewish future. Sign up at www.partnersintorah.org/mentor.