Sunday, May 08, 2005

On Torah Study...

When a small group of high school students decided they wanted to try something different six years ago, Bnei Akiva, the international religious Zionist youth group, was known for being a fun place for Zionist kids to socialize. A group of grade twelve students tried to kick-start a weekly Torah study program that year, but could only get five or six students to show up every week, Arye Sokol remembers.

“Two years ago, we struggled to get a minyan [of ten],” the UofT student says, surveying the packed room with pride. “This year we get 70 people a week.”

The program’s premise is simple: High school students get paired up with university students and learn in pairs and small groups. They come for an hour of group study, a brief speaker, the evening prayer Maariv and refreshments. Not where you’d expect to find a student when prime time TV is on. But this year, the popular program has swelled far beyond expectations.

The high school students who come every week often finish their classes as late as five or six pm. The university students come during midterms and even during exams. Most can’t imagine doing otherwise.

“When I walk into this room full of high school students learning together, it’s uplifting and it makes it fun. It’s nice to come to a place where learning is not for marks and it’s a positive atmosphere,” says Sara Yeres, an Ulpanat Orot student in grade 12. She, along with Sokol and two other students, coordinate the weekly program, which is called “Beit Midrash”, or ‘house of study’. Together with UofT student Sara Greenwood and Or Chaim student Ezra Javasky, they are responsible for creating the atmosphere of a house of study, something they attribute to the students who have begun to come in large numbers this year.

The program’s vibrance depends on older students drawing in younger ones, which is how Ulpana grade nine student Chaya Solomon was recruited this year.

“My older brother and older sister came [weekly in previous years],” she says, “so I decided to come, too.” Solomon, who says that she appreciates the opportunity to study Torah without being tested on the material, is like Yeres and Javasky in that respect – they too began attending because their older siblings did.

The record numbers of students have posed a challenge for the organizers, who hold the program weekly at the centrally-located Congregation Bnai Torah. For each new student who comes, the organizers have to find a regular study partner or group. Duos have become trios and groups of three now have five or six studying everything from Bible to Talmud to Jewish philosophy.

In addition to pairing up people with study partners, the organizers line up a weekly speaker, and over the years have hosted scores of interesting people, like Rabbi Charles Grysman from Netivot Hatorah, Rabbi Glenn Black from NCSY, and York University’s Rabbi Dr. Marty Lockshin. Some weeks, the students themselves do the speaking, Javasky says, while other times, it’s the B’nei Akiva shlichot Ayala Shalev and Avital Goddard who share brief words of Torah. Javasky, a grade eleven student, says that his favourite speaker was York student Noam Lockshin, who spoke about the lesson to be learned from Aggadic passages in the Talmud.

And the studying isn’t confined to the weekend – due to popular demand, the four organizers, collectively known as the “Beit Midrash Crew”, have begun Torah study weekly emails, journals for the holidays of Hannukah and Pesach, and they are planning, along with a lot of alum, to complete the entire Torah, Mishna, and Talmud branch of Nezikin in time for their all-night Torah study program on Shavuot. After a year of such tremendous growth, Bnei Akiva has its work cut out for next year, but the students say they are excited to just be doing what they’re already doing.

“It makes me proud to be a part of this,” Yeres says.

- Aliza Libman is a fourth-year religious studies and education student at York University. She has been studying Talmud at the Bnei Akiva Beit Midrash for three years. Published in August 2005.


Post a Comment

<< Home