Living-room Torah study: It works in Berkeley, but will it fly in Boston?

Eleven women cradle mugs of tea as they sit around a dining room table in a warm Berkeley home discussing a very dysfunctional family.

The father suffers from trauma he experienced as a child; the mother had a difficult pregnancy after years of infertility. Each parent strongly favors one of their twin boys, and the sons become locked in an epic power struggle from the moment they are born.

It’s the stuff of Hollywood melodrama, but the family epic is straight out of Toldot, the Torah portion the group is studying that week.

“Two nations are in your womb, and two nations will separate from your innards, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger,” God tells Rebecca when she is pregnant with Jacob and Esau, according to the text.

“Imagine,” says the group’s leader, Rabbi Dorothy Richman, “being told as a mother that this sense of competition is being set up from the beginning.”

The mothers, grandmothers and other women around the table have been meeting twice a month for more than four years in private homes to study traditional Jewish texts. They are part of Kevah, a 4-year-old Berkeley-based nonprofit that helps people organize small Jewish learning groups and provides trained teachers like Richman to guide them.

Kevah currently has 422 tuition-paying learners in 43 small groups in the Bay Area, meeting regularly around dining tables and in living rooms to study Torah, Talmud and other Jewish texts.

Now Kevah is about to take those living rooms national.

Kevah women’s group meets in North Berkeley to discuss Torah portion Toldot. photo/laura turbow

With the help of a new $750,000 grant from the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation, Kevah is planning to expand to Boston and Denver over the next several years and more than double the number of its study groups.

“There’s space for an approach to Jewish learning that is more personal, more flexible, more customized and more resonant,” said Sara Heitler Bamberger, Kevah’s founder and executive director.

The idea for Kevah was hatched around Bamberger’s kitchen table in 2008. She was talking with her brother, Jacob Heitler, and two friends and Jewish educators, Frayda Gonshor Cohen and Rabbi David Kasher. They were lamenting the fact that the Bay Area didn’t have the strong resources for accessible Jewish learning they had encountered while living in East Coast cities such as New York, Washington and Boston.

The friends began meeting once a week to strategize how to create rich Jewish learning opportunities in the Bay Area. “We came up with two ideas. One was that we could build a pluralistic yeshiva like Pardes [in Jerusalem]. The second was maybe we could create a network of small groups,” Bamberger said. “We thought a yeshiva sounds like a great idea, but we don’t know how to raise money and we don’t know if anyone is interested. So we said, ‘Let’s try out this small group idea.’ ”

Heitler, as the designated “social connector,” pulled together two pilot groups of learners in San Francisco and the East Bay. Kasher, who was teaching at Oakland Hebrew Day School at the time and is now Kevah’s senior rabbinic educator, was the East Bay group’s first teacher (he also writes a Torah column for J.). The group got together every couple of weeks to study Talmud and talked about how traditional Jewish law would apply to contemporary topics ranging from cloning to clothing.

“It was really a group of friends getting together,” Kasher said. “That later became so fundamental to our model, but it wasn’t a model back then.”

Sara Heitler Bamberger. photo/laura turbow

The two original groups continued successfully as pilot projects while Kevah secured early financial and institutional support from Bronfman’s Alumni Venture Fund, the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, UpStart Bay Area and the late philanthropist Warren Hellman. Kevah incorporated as a nonprofit in 2010, and Bamberger quit her job as the director of U.C. Berkeley’s Religion, Politics and Globalization Program to become its executive director and start growing its network of learning groups.

Early on, Kevah embraced the social aspect of group learning as much as the curriculum. Especially for young people, Bamberger found, it’s more appealing to meet in a home environment with friends than go to a formal class in an institutional setting. Groups multiplied through the power of personal networks: One person would invite friends to study together, or a teacher would invite people in a similar age group or profession to form a group. Most of the groups are based on personal affinities: The members are the same age, the same gender or are parents in the same community.

Many of the new Kevah groups are born out of existing Jewish institutions. The parents of children at Oakland’s Temple Sinai Preschool have a Kevah group, as do members of the Peninsula JCC in Foster City. There’s also a group of mostly 20-something singles that meets in Cow Hollow and a group affiliated with Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco that focuses on “biblical mothers.”

“We have been very influenced by the evangelical Christian model,” Bamberger said. “They use the language of ‘a church of small groups’ — [the idea] that everyone in a religious community should also have a micro-community and that is where real community and spiritual growth happens.”

Creating an informal adults-only space for busy mothers has been critical for a Mill Valley Kevah group.

“We always build in half an hour of social time,” said Beth Rutchik, 46, who co-founded the group four years ago with other women from a Jewish mothers group. “We generally relate the text to our life experiences. Nearly everyone has a son, so when we talk about Abraham and the binding of Isaac, it kind of rivets the group a bit.”

Meeting in private homes bonds the group members and is more appealing for many people than meeting in an office or synagogue, according to Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. He leads two Kevah groups, one that meets in San Francisco and a women’s group in Marin.

Sabrina Burger and Rabbi Leah Berkowitz at a Kevah educator training in Boston photo/ilene perlman

“Everything doesn’t have to be so formally presented that you can’t make coffee in your kitchen and offer it to your fellow students,” Creditor said.

Added Bamberger: “We found there’s something really resonant with people about the combination of a DIY [do-it-yourself] Jewish education with a lot of pretty professionalized support. You can craft an experience that feels more customized and authentic.”

Bamberger, 41, describes herself as a “serial Jewish social entrepreneur.” The second of four siblings, she grew up in Denver, where her family was active in the havurah movement. After earning an undergraduate degree in religious studies from Yale, she helped launch a pluralistic Jewish high school in Massachusetts and a Jewish curriculum organization, in between spending time in Israel to study at Pardes.

She completed a graduate degree in international relations at Georgetown and moved to Berkeley with her husband, Ken Bamberger, in 2005 when he was offered a job on the U.C. Berkeley Law School faculty and she was offered the opportunity to start a program on religion, politics and globalization at the university. The couple are members of Congregation Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Berkeley, and have five children, ages 1 through 11.

Though Bamberger herself is observant, she says Kevah’s aim is not encouraging ritual observance but getting more Jews engaged with the rich tradition of Jewish text study.

“It is not just for Orthodox Jews, not just for straight Jews, not just for other Jews, but it is all of our inheritance,” Bamberger said. “There is a time-honored debate in Talmud about which is more important, study or practice. In the end, the rabbis say study is more important because it leads to practice.”

In the first Kevah group in Berkeley, there was a participant whom Bamberger began to think of as the ideal Kevah user. He was a nonpracticing Jew who had been invited by friends but wasn’t otherwise involved in the Jewish community.

“I think in some ways he saw himself as a ‘bad Jew,’ in a self-mocking way,” Bamberger said. “After learning with the group for a while, at some point they began talking about how this act of learning together and discussing ideas is a core Jewish practice. It’s not this fringe thing we’re doing; for thousands of years, this has been part of the Jewish experience. So he was like, ‘Oh yeah, so now I’m a practicing Jew.’ ”

Studying text at a recent Kevah women’s group are (from left) Miriam Butrimovitz, Cynthia Colvin, Sheila Yudenfreund and facilitator Rabbi Dorothy Richman. photo/kimberly mark

The power of personal networks in engaging people Jewishly can’t be overstated, according to Gil Preuss, executive vice president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, which is backing Kevah’s expansion into that city.

“The remarkable thing about the Jewish community is the most engaged person [can be] connected to one of the least engaged,” Preuss said. “If we want to bring in more people and engage them, the best strategy we have is through personal networks.”

Kevah recently held a teacher training for new educators in Boston and is in the process of launching 15 groups there. The plan is to have 75 groups nationwide by the summer of 2015 and launch another 25 the following year, Bamberger said. The organization will start doing groundwork to launch in Denver next fall. Kevah tuition ranges from $160 to $480 a semester depending on how often the group meets (between one and four time times a month), and scholarships are available.

Expanding nationally will test whether the Kevah method is successful in other cities, according to Chip Edelsberg, executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation.

“The goal of the grant is to help Kevah in new locations build on its existing success” in the Bay Area, Edelsberg said. “I think Kevah will benefit from the Jim Joseph Foundation investment to position itself for favorable review from other funders.”

While Kevah works on expanding to other cities, the organization is also building a strong foundation for Jewish innovation right here in the Bay Area. It recently moved into an airy new North Berkeley office space and brought in three other Jewish organizations. Wilderness Torah, Hasidah, a Jewish fertility organization, and the local office of Moishe House are all renting space in what has become a new Jewish co-working hub.

“I’ve had this dream for about a year,” Bamberger said. “Why create a siloed community if we had the capacity to create much more cross-pollination?”

Kevah participants Bob Stamper and Dan Fingerman photo/kimberly mark

While Hasidah is a new addition to the Bay Area Jewish nonprofit landscape, Wilderness Torah, Moishe House and Kevah were all early participants in the UpStart Bay Area accelerator, which helps new Jewish startups strategically develop their organizations.

“We have a sibling-like relationship,” Bamberger said. “We feel very invested in each other’s success, and in conversations it became clear that a number of us were looking for office space all at the same time.”

Bamberger envisions an environment where employees of the different organizations will come together for professional development and Jewish learning programs, as well as informally share best practices. There is already crossover — recently, a Kevah group started up at a Moishe House, and a number of Wilderness Torah employees are attending it.

“The East Bay has an astounding number of organizations that are influencing how young adults think about Jewish organizational life,” said Bamberger, noting that local foundations and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation have generously supported Kevah and other emerging Jewish organizations such as Urban Adamah and G-dcast. “It has felt like a very supported and exciting place to be a Jewish social entrepreneur.”

At the Berkeley Kevah group, the women close their discussion about the Torah portion Toldot by reflecting on the pain caused by parents who can’t love both their children fully.

“Do I have to be Esau for you to love me?” Richman imagines Jacob thinking as he disguises himself as his brother to receive a blessing from Isaac, his father.

“It breaks my heart,” Richman says. “The nature of blessing is not scarcity, just like the nature of love is not scarcity.”

One person in the group says that the Biblical family story, though extreme, has connections to contemporary life.

“I have two kids. One is easier to know and relate to. I think differences are going to emerge,” she says. “There’s something very real about this, too.”

For many Kevah members, insights like these are part of the joy in studying Torah in an intimate, small-group setting.

“I keep finding it astounding that so many words of wisdom come out of my friends,” says group member Toby Hendon.

Kevah has information about signing up and starting a new group at www.kevah.org or (510) 280-5656

Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer.