By Sandy Eller
Some gifts come in elaborate boxes, adorned with expertly tied ribbons, but the best present that Sheri Heller of Potomac has ever received is something that couldn’t possibly be wrapped — it is her relationship with her Partner in Torah, Far Rockaway resident Sima Krischer.
Sheri and Sima were paired up five years ago. Since that time, the two women have worked their way through numerous books and sefarim, shared family simchas, indulged in many deep conversations, and forged a sisterly bond that spans the miles. As Sheri became more involved in her learning, her husband also signed up for Partners in Torah, and nearly a year ago the Hellers moved to a new home in order to be closer to a shul. Today, Sheri’s sons Mitchell and Max both have learning partners of their own, and further deepening the familial bond between Sheri and Sima, their daughters Toby and Tzippora began learning together just a few weeks ago.
Dr. Steve Mermelstein and Sandy Kadish have also become exceptionally close through Partners in Torah Having learned together via Skype every Sunday night since 2012, the two men have cultivated a solid friendship, a relationship that bridged the miles between Steve’s Woodmere home and Sandy’s Baltimore residence. Sandy first began learning with Partners in Torah in 2003 as a ba’al teshuvah working in Mississippi and the only shomer Shabbos Jew for miles around. Steve is his second Partners in Torah mentor, the two pairing up more than seven years ago. The chavrusas took advantage of a rare opportunity to meet in person recently in Florida, and Sandy credits Steve for his extraordinary patience and ability to clarify even complex subjects.
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, the story of Partners in Torah’s exponential growth began in the most unexpected of places: Alaska.
In 1999, 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 1980s, 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, learning at one of our programs, and Ron wanted to participate as well,” recalled Rabbi Gewirtz. “I matched him up with Yosef, a psychologist from Brooklyn, someone 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 2020 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 and inspiring others to do the same.
Rabbi Gewirtz notes that the primary focus of Partners in Torah is to help all Jews build a proud, lifelong connection to Judaism. The mentor–student experience, built between individuals with similar interests and lives, is about having enjoyable conversations and fostering 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 does not.”
The upcoming launch of a digital platform will make relevant content and resources easily available, and Partners in Torah plans to recruit thousands of new mentors to meet the ever-growing need of those who want to connect with their Judaism. Mentors, who come from all walks of life and need not be seasoned educators, 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.
Partners in Torah chairman Steve Savitsky estimated that there are nearly 1,000 mentors in the Five Towns alone, a number that he hopes will increase significantly in the coming weeks. He noted that virtually everyone can be a successful mentor, and while learning can come from a book or a sefer, there are many other ways to explore the beauty of Judaism, with dedicated Partners in Torah staff members available to provide guidance and resources to help inspire students.
“When I first started encouraging people to volunteer with Partners in Torah, they would tell me they didn’t know enough, but the truth is that most people know far more than they realize,” said Savitsky. “Of course, it’s important to study something, but the main part of being a mentor is to share things about your life — why you light candles on Friday night, why you keep kosher, why you devote so much of your income to educating your kids.”
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; 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 PartnersinTorah.org/mentor.