Lured by the promise of a weekly Torah study that routinely draws a crowd of 200, I schlepped down to Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills on a recent Shabbat morning.
Beth Am is a large Reform synagogue, the kind of community that boasts a staff of four rabbis, a cantor and an array of six people with “director” in their title — all led by Rabbi Janet Marder, a former president of the Reform rabbinical association and one of the four editors of Mishkan HaNefesh, the Reform machzor that came out last year.
Torah study starts at 9, but we were advised to show up at 8:30 for breakfast (a standard bagel and coffee spread). When my friend and I arrived, we immediately were beset by a welcoming committee of two older women. One lamented that they’d stopped having official greeters — not that it mattered, as we were greeted so many times that getting bagels and finding seats took longer than expected. Nevertheless, we were told we’d better find seats quickly; there are usually around 200 people (a standard selling point that several people brought up), and it’s often standing room only. Most seats ended up being filled, although just 120 showed up. (An auspicious number — there were 120 men in the Sanhedrin, and there are 120 members of the Knesset).
It’s an older crowd — most looked 60 and up. They are affluent, suburban white people dressed for a day at the farmers market. The ecstatic reception my friend and I received was no doubt due to the excitement of seeing two new 20s/30s faces — something I encounter on many Jew in the Pew outings.
Everyone we spoke with regaled us with the many wonders and virtues of Rabbi Marder, who leads this Torah study. As we waited to get underway, I wondered: Do they come for Torah? Or do they come for Janet Marder?
Marder’s predecessor, Rabbi Richard Block, led a weekly Torah study as well. “When I arrived 17 years ago, there were about 15 people sitting around a table in the library,” Marder told me.
We met in a freestanding one-room building with a gently sloped shingled roof. I can think of more than a few congregations that would be ecstatic to have a social hall this large, let alone fill a room this size for Torah study every week. Floor-to-ceiling windows dominate the walls; so much natural light makes for a wonderful space.
Marder rolled in a few minutes short of 9, wheeled suitcase in tow. From the suitcase she produced about a dozen books and arrayed them across the table. We studied several verses of Exodus 4: the burning bush. This Torah study group does not look at the weekly Torah portion, but moves slowly through the entire Five Books a few verses at a time. Genesis took seven years, one regular told me.
We began by reciting the blessing over Torah study (la’asok bedivrei Torah). Many, but not all, follow along in copies of W. Gunther Plaut’s “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” a mainstay of Reform Torah study for many decades. A sizable number also follow along on their phones and iPads. (After all, this is Silicon Valley.)
Marder periodically reached for one of the books, reading directly from a wide range of sources and approaches. Her chosen sources ranged from the late Orthodox Israeli commentator Nehama Leibowitz to classical medieval commentator Nachmanides to contemporary Protestant scholar Walter Brueggemann. The overall theme of the morning was Moses’ reluctance when called upon for a sacred task. We discussed the idea of a vocation and of feeling that one has “a calling” for a particular task or occupation in life.
My friend, an ethnographer by training, pointed out something that didn’t occur to me: Marder uses all these books as props. If I’m honest, I was totally charmed by it. But surely, my friend pointed out, she could have typed up the smattering of comments she took from the many books she brought with her. Why lug all the books down from her office? Bringing the books is a choice. It’s part of the show. More than one regular mentioned it when explaining the awe they experience learning at the feet of someone who possesses, in their eyes, total authority.
None of which is a criticism. As we learn in Pirkei Avot: aseh lecha rav — find yourself a teacher. And if you take that advice seriously, you could do a lot worse than Rabbi Janet Marder. She is an excellent teacher: learned, engaging, inviting of participation.
I have been to similar study sessions at a number of Reform synagogues — as much a group discussion as a lecture, no knowledge of Hebrew required, a wide range of traditional and contemporary sources, and, without being dumbed down, accessible to those who have no experience in traditional Jewish text study. The overall style of Marder’s Torah study is of a type. It’s a great exemplar of that type, though not exactly unique (but shhh — don’t tell the regulars).
Marder devotes a great deal of time to the comments and questions (but mostly comments) of her audience, an element of her style that gives regulars a sense of ownership. Microphones are passed around the room so each speaker can be heard. As she calls on each person, Marder knows most of their names. This crowd is as likely to bring up a New York Times op-ed by David Brooks as a point of relevance as they are to bring up a different passage of Torah. Marder manages the time deftly, a warm and considerate listener — but, in the face of many hands in the air and a ticking clock, firmly keeps things moving throughout the hour-long session. She’s also funny, and so is her audience.
So homogenous is this crowd in appearance that two outliers stand out clearly. The first is a tall man with a long beard, peyos hanging from the sides of his head, blue-and-white tzitzit hanging from under his shirt; he sits eagerly in the front row. And, way in the back, a large black guy in a white T-shirt had come rigorously prepared; he set up a T.V. dinner-type tray in front of his seat for his breakfast and his copy of the Torah.
I was also told about one man who takes copious notes each week. He sends them out to the Torah study’s email list, complete with citations and links.
To bring things to a close, Marder had us rise and turn to the inside back cover of our books, where a copy of Kaddish D’Rabbanan (a version of Kaddish said at the end of a period of study) was affixed. We read this aloud in English, which struck me as a perfect distillation of contemporary mainstream Reform Judaism. (Kaddish D’Rabbanan entered the Reform repertoire about 10 years ago with the publication of the Reform siddur Mishkan T’filah; Marder was on the prayerbook’s extended editorial committee.)
The people who come to this Torah study are devotees. Many come every week. They know each other. And they love, love, love Janet Marder. Ask her disciples what keeps them coming back and they begin glowingly expounding — at length — about her teaching style.
To be clear: Rabbi Marder leads a great Torah study. If you’re down on the Peninsula on Shabbat with no plans, stop by Beth Am.
Jew in the Pew is a regular feature. Send tips about religious, ritual and spiritual goings-on to firstname.lastname@example.org.