With tens of thousands of religious awakenings fostered worldwide, it is hard to believe that Partners in Torah took its first major steps towards becoming a household name in a city known for snow-capped glaciers and Native American totem poles. But in truth, Partners in Torah’s incredible journey began in the most unexpected of places - Alaska - albeit with several stops along the way in various parts of the Garden State.
It was 1999 when Rabbi Eli Gewirtz received a phone call from Ron Adler, a Ketchikan social worker who wanted to expand his knowledge of Judaism but lived quite a distance from the nearest Jewish community. With a long history in the world of outreach, Rabbi Gewirtz had already launched an adult education program in Twin Rivers, New Jersey in the eighties, with dozens of Lakewood volunteers making the weekly 25 mile trip for an hour of one-on-one learning with local residents. After relocating to Passaic in 1993, Rabbi Gewirtz created a similar initiative in a local shul and the idea of matching students and mentors caught fire, with additional branches popping up in other shuls, schools and Jewish community centers. Within six years, Partners in Torah had spread to 40 locations but the historic turning point came with Adler’s request to facilitate a long distance learning arrangement, one that ultimately spanned a distance of nearly 3,500 miles.
“Ron’s brother was in Elizabeth, New Jersey and was learning at one of our programs and he wanted to participate as well,” recalled Rabbi Gewirtz. “I matched him up with Yosef, a psychologist from Brooklyn, someone who I thought would be a good fit and instead of learning together in person they did it over the telephone. We reimbursed Yosef monthly for the cost of the calls and over time, the idea of learning by telephone mushroomed beyond anything we could have ever imagined.”
The Ron and Yosef pairing was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and Partners in Torah soon found itself making shidduchim between those who wanted to find out more about Judaism and mentors who were happy to share whatever they knew, the limitations of geographic boundaries smashed to smithereens by the wonders of telecommunications. The Partners in Torah phone model worked on multiple levels - both students and mentors loved the relative anonymity of phone learning and the flexibility of both time and subject matter, and it became abundantly clear that participants on both sides were finding themselves enriched by the experience. Fast forward to 2019 and Partners in Torah has seen over 76,000 men and women from 2,337 cities in 39 different countries learning together, touching the lives of people from all walks of life, including some well known names. Actress Mayim Bialik reached out to Partners in Torah over ten years ago in an effort to fill an intellectual void in her life and was paired with Allison Josephs who went on to create Jew in the City, a website dedicated to reversing negative stereotypes associated with Orthodox Judaism. As Bialik grew in her religious observance as a result of her chavrusa with Josephs, she proudly proclaimed her religious observance while playing a significant role in a hit television show, refusing to work on Jewish holidays. Bialik has said that she hopes to be an inspiration to others as she publicly strives to balance her religious and secular lives.
Attorney Steven Margulies is one of many Teaneck residents who is a Partners in Torah mentor, his weekly phone calls with Marty Wolf spanning a period of nearly eight years. A corporate and wedding photographer from Annapolis, Marty attended yeshiva as a kid but stopped going to shul after his bar mitzvah, although he always felt a close connection to G-d. Years later, after stumbling across Partners in Torah’s Facebook page, Marty decided that he wanted to continue his Jewish education and since that time he and Steven have completed several books including Garden of Emunah, What the Angel Taught You and Derech Hashem. Marty is effusive in his praise for his mentor who is always open to answering any questions and the partnership has been such a positive experience for Steven that his daughter, Ally, a graduate student, has followed in his footsteps, becoming a mentor over a year ago.
Helping his chavrusa pick out a tallit and tefillin is just one of the many ways that Teaneck lawyer David Sheffey has become part of Dr. Dan Rosenberg’s life. Having just celebrated their 16 year “learniversary,” the two have logged significant amounts of phone time, making their way through books on Taryag mitzvot and the aseret hadibrot, mishnayot, the weekly parsha, Sefer Yehoshua and Mesilat Yesharim. Dan credited David for helping him grow both as a Jew and a person and he made the trek from Ambler, Pennsylvania to meet with David at the 2012 Siyum HaShas, an event that he described as “an amazing experience.”
Rabbi Gewirtz noted that Partners in Torah’s primary focus is to help all Jews build a proud, lifelong connection to Judaism. The mentor-student experience is about building relationships between like minded individuals who share similar interests, whose enjoyable conversations foster a sense of caring that carries through, even over the phone.
“This isn’t about telling people how to live their lives,” explained Rabbi Gewirtz. “People who come to us are looking for a connection to their Judaism and our goal is for them to feel that they belong in the Jewish community because right now, the overwhelming majority do not.”
The upcoming launch of a digital platform will make relevant content and resources easily available, and Partners in Torah is poised to recruit thousands of new mentors to meet the ever growing need of those who want to connect with their Judaism. Mentors typically sign up to learn for 30 minutes a week over a three month period, with most extending their commitment because the experience is so rewarding.
Over 1,600 mentors have come from Northern New Jersey alone and Partners in Torah chairman Steve Savitsky hopes that that number will increase significantly in the coming weeks. Mentors need not be seasoned educators and Savitsky noted that while learning can come from a book or a sefer, there are many other ways to explore the beauty of Judaism.
“So many of us go through life as observant Jews and never stop and think how fortunate we are to lead religious lives,” said Savitsky. “Those of us who have had the benefit of a Jewish education and a religious upbringing possess the tools to positively impact the lives of others.”
Drawing parallels to the business world, Partners in Torah COO Moe Mernick noted that much like Airbnb empowered individuals to become part of the hospitality industry by hosting people in their homes and Uber democratized the world of transportation by giving individuals the opportunity to become paid drivers, Partners in Torah gives anyone, anywhere, the ability to ignite the flame of Torah in those who are thirsting for knowledge.
“There are millions of unaffiliated Jews in the world and the future of Jewish education cannot rely solely on outreach professionals, the campus rabbis and the big organizations,” said Mernick. “Any person who had the benefit of a Jewish education has the ability to impact the life of another Jew and all it takes is 30 minutes a week to light up their world. Just imagine what could happen if each of us, as well as our family members, neighbors and friends looked inside ourselves and decided to share the beauty, depth and relevance of Torah with another Jew - we could literally change the course of Jewish history.”
Learn with a fellow Jew for 30 minutes a week and help shape the Jewish future. Sign up at www.partnersintorah.org/mentor
By Sandy Eller