Busy rabbis recharge batteries in peer study sessions

When Patricia Karlin-Neumann was studying for the rabbinate, she would spend hours poring over Torah and Talmud. Tackling the material gave her an incredible "rush," she recalls.

But once hired to lead a congregation, Karlin-Neumann found it harder and harder to carve out the uninterrupted chunks of time she needed to dive into the texts.

"Rabbis have woefully less study time than we'd like to think," said Karlin-Neumann of Alameda's Temple Israel.

In order to spend more time learning this spring, she joined about two dozen other Bay Area rabbis who are seeking similar academic sustenance in four half-day study sessions at Oakland's Temple Sinai.

While four sessions might not seem like a lot, rabbis said it's enough to recharge their spiritual and intellectual batteries. They are among peers who understand Hebrew and are familiar with the texts. And they can study without teaching or preparing the next d'var Torah (sermon).

"This is Torah for it's own sake," Karlin-Neumann said.

The Reform movement's Joint Commission on Continuing Rabbinic Education is sponsoring the East Bay sessions and similar ones in Chicago, Miami and the Baltimore area.

This is the second year for the Bay Area sessions, which are being organized by Rabbi Judy Shanks of Lafayette's Temple Isaiah. The classes are open to rabbis of all affiliations.

During the sessions, rabbis study Chassidic and kabbalistic texts such as the Zohar. Topics include prayer as a form of meditation, language as a symbol of liberation and sexuality as a part of Shabbat.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA's Hillel and an instructor at the University of Judaism, is teaching the classes. He views the sessions as a way to combat the absence of teaching and spirituality he sees in many synagogues today.

These classes, he said, are also a vehicle to reinforce the idea that rabbis primarily should be teachers — not managers, political activists and social workers.

"They get consumed by the demands of the daily routine and the particular crises that come down," he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

Karlin-Neumann agreed. "I'm sort of a Jane-of-all-trades in a small community."

Seidler-Feller echoed the Chassidic notion that Jewish study should be raised to a higher level in which interacting with texts becomes a spiritual experience, instead of solely an academic exercise.

"The learning becomes an uncovering of God's presence," he said.

Studying about sexuality, for example, can go beyond memorizing the laws of family purity.

Seidler-Feller will speak on "Most Delightful of Days (Hemdat Yamim): Shabbat as the Intersection of Spirituality and Sexuality" at the last session scheduled for Thursday, June 15.

The session will focus on Judaism's physically oriented spirituality. Shabbat is hardly a day of denial, he said. The holiest day on the Jewish calendar includes a joyful meal and study.

Similarly, Seidler-Feller said, making love on Shabbat is considered a mitzvah, not only for promoting procreation but because lovemaking on the Sabbath is a metaphor for the connecting of two souls. "It becomes a day of affirmation."

Seidler-Feller would like to see more rabbis attain a higher spiritual plane through study. He said lack of regular opportunities for study is especially problematic for non-Orthodox rabbis. Their Orthodox counterparts, by contrast, are expected to teach and study on a regular basis.

The Reform movement is trying to respond. The study sessions are one of several methods its education commission is using to reach rabbis. Others include offering national academic conferences and hooking into the Internet to reach all Hebrew Union College graduates.

Karlin-Neumann would like to see more education offered to the rabbinate. Now, rabbis can take classes at U.C. Berkeley, the Graduate Theological Union and Stanford University, but the courses don't focus primarily on issues that concern rabbis, such as Jewish textual interpretations.

That's why she welcomes these study sessions.

"We also need to water our own roots," she said.