Passaic—In turbulent times, it is of great value to focus on what unites us as Jews, not on what divides us. Sometimes, it’s not about whether you wear a kippah to work or sleeves past your elbow, or how you voted in the last election. It’s not about where you daven, or if you daven at all. Sometimes, it is just about two Jews learning together, without distractions. They are equal, respectful partners; one might know more, one might know less, but they are united by an interest in sharing Torah.
An astounding 65,000 people from many walks of life have participated in Partners in Torah since its inception in 1993. Initially, founder Rabbi Eli Gewirtz told the Jewish Link, it was a small program in day schools, synagogues and JCCs, with a primary focus on a little extra learning and inspiration for busy day-school parents. Partners would meet in person one night a week; a few years later a telephone option was introduced. “There was a partner from Ketchikan, Alaska, with a mentor from Brooklyn. He would send the phone bill and we would reimburse him for the telephone charges,” Rabbi Gewirtz shared.
Now it is 22 years later. The stories are varied and wide ranging, and overwhelmingly positive. “As a result of Partners in Torah, I am now a practicing, observant Orthodox Jew, with four children growing up to be observant Jews as well. Partners in Torah didn’t just impact my life, it transformed it, gradually, over time,” said David Magerman, a philanthropist from Philadelphia, who is the founder and president of the Kohelet Foundation.
“My wife and I learned through Partners in Torah in both Detroit and Baltimore. It was and continues to be an important part of the foundation of our Jewish lives, and the spiritual lives also of our children,” said Phil Jacobs, JLNJ’s associate editor.
There are literally thousands of stories to choose from, of lives impacted, by Partners in Torah. Everyone interviewed for this article shared unique and often glowing details of their partnerships. One described her partner as her BFF (best friend forever), and another said though he had never actually been to Houston or met his partner in person, he knows he has a friend there to visit.
Rabbi Gewirtz’s initial motivation in starting the program was to create an outreach program to unaffiliated Jews. Early in his career, he worked as the pulpit rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in a non-Orthodox community in East Windsor, New Jersey. “I learned how bonds that we share can be brought together through the medium of Torah study. I learned of the impact we can have on people who don’t have exposure that we have had,” he said.
Growing up in Williamsburg and Midwood in the 1970s, Rabbi Gewirtz told the Jewish Link that his family, who owned a wholesale hardware business, helped support Russian immigrants by delivering pots and pans to their homes as well as tzedakah, meals and help in myriad other ways, and was thus exposed to a Jewish population without a religious background. From sharing what his family had to give, he was able to recognize love for a fellow Jew and learn to understand the value of achdus (unity).
“What we have come to appreciate is the unity and the friendships and the underlying value of the learning and the relationships. It’s not so much about helping the person who is unaffiliated, it’s bringing Jewish people together and sharing and learning with one another,” he said.
Thus, Partners in Torah’s organizational focus was never to “make people religious.” “Several hundred people have told us they have become more or more fully observant,” he said. “There is a strong connection. But it is the outgrowth of their personal choice, and a process that evolves over time. It’s a personal journey.”
When evaluating mentors for the program, Rabbi Gewirtz explained what he does not want. “If you say ‘I want to make someone else religious,’ you will not be accepted as a mentor in the program. When you have an agenda, it ruins the relationship,” he said.
Rabbi Gewirtz added that he is extraordinarily proud of one part of the Partners in Torah feedback experience. More than providing benefits to the recipient, the mentor gains at least as much if not more. “There is virtually no mentor who has not said ‘I have gained much more from this than my partner.’ That is one thing I am very proud of,” he said.
This year, in conjunction with its upcoming winter retreat conference in Stamford this coming weekend, Partners in Torah is launching a new program called Lev L’Lev, Heart to Heart, which will help the organization broaden its focus and expand its services to offer partnership opportunities to those with special needs.
Rabbi Gewirtz shared that outreach to those with special needs, as with other populations within the Jewish community upon which Partners in Torah focuses, such as seniors, is a natural outgrowth and evolution for the organization. “There are areas of the Jewish population who are not feeling connected. We are thinking about which elements of the community would benefit from stronger Jewish connections,” he said.
He added that, for the first time, sign language interpreters will be signing the lectures at the upcoming conference, to help facilitate the participation of a number of deaf participants who are attending this year.
Rabbi Gewirtz shared that Partners in Torah currently employs approximately 20 relationship managers who do initial interviews with participants, who then use a sophisticated computer matching program to find appropriate partners. Debby Levi, of Passaic, is an employee of Partners in Torah. In addition to having had partners in Torah, she is looking forward to having her son Meir Boruch, who has special needs, participate as well.
About the matching process, Levi said the initial 10-15 minute phone call with a relationship manager and the potential participant involves talking a little bit to get a feeling of what the person is like. Many different factors are raised, from the mundane (“When are you available?” “What do you want to learn?”) to several more oblique questions that can make or break the relationship. Rabbi Gewirtz added the following about the traits that need to be identified as part of the matching process. “They have to be pleasant. They have to speak well and they have to be non-judgmental.”
Levi shared that the Lev L’Lev matching process will be slightly different, as people with special needs often have parents, caregivers or other advocates who are the initial speaker with the relationship manager. “Because you’re not speaking to the actual person, the process is different. The matching is different and the learning is different,” she said.
Levi is currently heading up the call for Lev L’Lev mentors. Those interested in mentoring are asked to please email [email protected], or by phone: 973-221-3650 x107.
Rabbi Gewirtz added that Partners in Torah is currently fundraising to add additional relationship managers who have training with the special-needs population, to more adequately fill the need and respond to the interest that has already been expressed. Anyone interested in making a donation to financially support Lev L’Lev and make this program possible should email [email protected] or call 973-221-3650 x103.
He also said that while generally Partners in Torah is a low-cost program, it takes hundreds of calls over multiple years to make a match, solidify it and then keep in touch. Each partner has a relationship manager who is their specific contact at Partners in Torah.
Linda Karasick, a Teaneck resident who has been involved in many local and national special-needs advocacy programs over the years along with her husband Mark, is enthusiastic about the possibilities of Partners in Torah’s Lev L’Lev program. Of the family’s two sons who have special needs, Linda shared that Avi Karasick is extremely enthusiastic about participating in Partners in Torah. “Avi loves to learn and will go anywhere,” she said. Adding that he lives in a home, his aides take him to special shiurim and other programs. “He loves learning and loves to shmooze,” she told the Jewish Link.
Karasick described the Torah-learning partnership match being made for her son as a shidduch. “I’m sure it takes a while to find the right match. They spend time trying to make the match work one on one. It’s a unique program that matches up the person with special needs with the mentor. My son was very excited about the idea and he is looking forward to having a partner.”
Learn more about Partners in Torah at http://www.partnersintorah.org. Those interested are also invited to contact Rabbi Eli Gewirtz at 800-STUDY-4-2.
By Elizabeth Kratz