It’s an early Tuesday evening on San Francisco’s Russian Hill and Nick’s Crispy Tacos is running its $2 Taco Tuesday special. The place is packed and Bob Marley reggae music is playing as 12 Jews in their 20s and 30s gather to study that week’s Torah portion.
Torah and Tacos, a monthly Torah study session held in local taquerias, is the brainchild of Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe, who began the program two years ago.
“Before I became a rabbi, I used to bike home from the Financial District and would regularly pick up burritos on the way,” said Jaffe, an assistant rabbi at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El since 2007. “I have a good knowledge of the taquerias around town and thought it would be fun, on a month-to-month basis, to get Emanu-El members together around their local taqueria.”
Moreover, Jaffe wanted to find an informal location for Torah study, one that would to give his students the comfort level to ask questions they might not ask in a synagogue setting.
“There’s a certain sense of vulnerability and intimidation people feel coming into a formal synagogue, in that they have to ask a certain way,” Jaffe said. “Once you remove that formality, people take a deep breath and sort of let their guard down.
“That’s the overall message here: that Torah is not something that’s reserved for the synagogue and that it’s within all of us — it doesn’t have to be put on a pedestal that way.”
To allow participants to have an occasional study session close to their home, Torah and Tacos is held at taquerias in various San Francisco neighborhoods. Upcoming meetings are slated for restaurants in the Western Addition and the Mission.
In addition to dipping into the Five Books of Moses, the sessions also afford people an opportunity to dip into some salsa and sample a variety of Mexican food venues.
Jaffe generally scouts out the taquerias a few months in advance, looking for friendly places with good food and an open atmosphere.
“What we’re looking for is a space that’s clean, there’s room for people, and it’s close to public transportation or parking,” he said. “Some of our members go to Torah and Tacos to check out the taqueria, because it’s one they haven’t heard of.”
For many in the group, however, it’s more about Genesis than guacamole.
Luis Yaquian, for example, said he had a void in his week before he learned about Torah and Tacos on Facebook.
“This helps fill that void and gets me through to the next Shabbat,” said Yaquian, who used to take Talmud classes at Emanu-El. “It makes you want to be involved, it’s inspiring and I really enjoy the teaching.”
“It’s a great social atmosphere to debate topics and do a little Torah study,” participant Spencer Rosen said.
In between munching on tacos and enjoying cerveza, the participants ask questions and the discussion is lively. In discussing Parashat Shelach Lecha last week, for example, there was debate about beit t’shuvah, Jewish outreach, the role of the Holocaust in 21st-century Judaism, making aliyah, Jewish machismo in the kibbutz movement and what it means to be a Jew.
“It’s meant to be Torah study,” Jaffe said. “But there’s also a social component to it.”
When other diners see people wearing kippahs and studying together, there is usually one of two reactions: curious stares, or recognition from other Jews.
“Unaffiliated Jews and non-Jews see us there and ask what’s happening, and [sometimes] join us,” Jaffe said. “We’ve made great connections that way.”
Clearly, Jaffe is pleased with the results of Torah and Tacos. While he expected the program to attract a few young people, he’s been pleasantly surprised by the size of the group, and happy that many of the attendees are Jews by choice.
Could this lead to other innovative programs, like Talmud and Tofu, or Midrash and Manicotti?
Jaffe’s not sure, but the success of the Torah and Tacos program does have him pondering a takeoff on the brit olam, the eternal covenant.
“I want to open a chain of taquerias in Israel called Burrito-Lam,” he joked.
Torah and Tacos has two more meetings on the current Congregation Emanu-El schedule, July14 at El Burrito Express and Aug. 11 at Mariachi’s, both in S.F. Information: (415) 751-2535 or www.emanuelsf.org/ep_families.htm.