Two rabbis and 12 yeshiva students from New Jersey will join forces with Rabbi Israel and Esther Becker of Congregation Chofetz Chayim and the Southwest Torah Institute later this month for a multifaceted program called “The Connection.”
The goal of the free, three-week program is “to help the Jewish community of Tucson build, strengthen and explore their connection with Judaism.” Subtitled the Edye Anne Singer Learning Program, it honors the memory of sponsor Brian Singer’s mother.
The Connection, which will offer a variety of classes and study options for both men and women, is inspired by the Dr. Paul W. Hoffert Spirit Program, which Chofetz Chayim has offered since 2000, but “this opportunity is way beyond,” says Rabbi Becker.
The Foxman Torah Institute of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, is led by Rabbi Shimon Max. Becker explains that the yeshiva is moving its Bais Medrash, its post-high school program, to Tucson from June 26-July 17. The yeshiva students “will be presented with the challenge, the opportunity, to expand their horizons and interact with Jews of all ages and backgrounds and share their knowledge, their Torah illumination.”
Morning “Taste of Talmud” classes will begin June 26, but the official opening of The Connection will be on Wednesday, June 27, with simultaneous classes at 7 p.m. for men and women at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona building, also known as the Harvey and Deanna Evenchik Center for Jewish Philanthropy, 3718 E. River Road.
“Torah Together” on opening night will be a chance for local men to meet the rabbis and yeshiva students and engage in an hour of interactive learning.
Esther Becker will lead the opening night women’s class, “Torah in Three Dimensions,” exploring a Medrash, part of the Jewish oral tradition that provides interpretation and commentary on Biblical texts. In this interactive session, she will challenge participants to glean new insights from ancient texts.
“Jewish learning should not be distant, it should be very close emotionally, not just intellectually,” says Rabbi
Becker, adding that too often when people hear about studying Torah, “to many it’s a mystery.”
He is thrilled, he says, to have the Federation and the Tucson Jewish Community Center as cosponsors, which gives the program a broader reach, “because we want Jewish learning to be something very vibrant and very much a passion for Tucson Jews.” Such sponsorship, Becker adds, is likely unprecedented for a yeshiva program.
“Esther’s class is really going to be extraordinary, because Esther has tremendous ability that is untapped, where she can take a Medrash, a story, an illustration, and take it apart and present provocative questions … to help participants come up with really powerful insights,” says Becker.
“My goal is to expose as many Jewish women as I can to the beauty of Torah … where they can take that information and grow with it on a day-to-day basis,” says Esther. “Also for them to get to know us, Southwest Torah Institute, and to understand that we’re here for them on whatever level they’re [at], whatever level they want to study at.”
The Connection will include one-on-one or small group learning, she adds. For women, it will be an opportunity to ask her questions and for her to break down barriers and misconceptions.
Over the years, when she has given classes, she explains, it has been beautiful and heartwarming to “see the lightbulbs going on in the women’s faces — ‘Oh, so that’s why we do that, oh, I never understood it that way.’
“And it has nothing to do with observing [rituals]… it has to do with who we are and what we are and our connection to G-d, and the guidebook, the Torah that he gave us,” she says.
The Beckers will host a kumzitz, a celebration with music and food at their home on Thursday, June 28 at 7 p.m.
Flexibility will be a hallmark of The Connection, Becker emphasizes — participants can attend as many or as few sessions as they like. The private or small group sessions, dubbed “Let’s Talk Torah,” allow participants to set the time, duration and topic. There also will be drop-in learning for men nightly, Sunday-Thursday, from 7-9 p.m. at Chofetz Chayim. A nine-part series for both men and women, “Not Just Words: A Guide to Understanding Prayer,” also will be held at 7 p.m., July 2-5 and 8-12 at Chofetz Chayim.
“In that series, we will take apart the daily Amidah [a three-part series of blessings], and really focus on the concepts of prayer: request, praise, gratitude, supplication,” says Becker, to illuminate “all the things that normal human beings pray for and desire, and to show how through prayer, we not only understand and appreciate ourselves, but we connect to G-d in a very profound and impactful way.”
“Biblical Breakthroughs” will be held Fridays at noon at Chofetz Chayim for men and women and a lunch and learn for men and women will be held Tuesday, July 10 at noon at the Jewish Federation.
Along with class descriptions and registration links, a website, www.theconnectionaz.com, provides photographs and capsule biographies of the scholars who will be coming to Tucson from New Jersey — and whose diverse hobbies, including basketball, Frisbee, skateboarding, parkour, guitar, piano, farming, metal- and wood-working, archery, fixing cars, and baking show that there’s more to these students than just a devotion to study.
Singer, a third year medical student at the University of Arizona, says for his mother, “education and learning was always a huge part of her parenting … she never pushed us to learn but cultivated a love of learning in us that has really propelled my success in life.” This has made the rigors of medical school somewhat easier, says Singer, adding that his sister, Holly Tayne of Phoenix, recently completed pharmacy school.
A bad car accident when he was in the fourth grade left his mother hospitalized and in rehab for a year. He recalls doing his homework in her hospital room.
“She would never let anything stop her from being a good mom. She instilled a lot of confidence in us,” he says, adding that he hopes The Connection will “instill further confidence in the Jews of Tucson in their own learning and their own Judaism in whatever way they view or approach their Judaism.”
Cosponsors of the program also include Brake Masters, in memory of founders Eric and Shalom Laytin’s mother, and Evergreen Mortuary & Cemetery.