Making Torah Come Alive: How Author Abigail Pogrebin Learns
Hadar teaches critical Jewish ideas to a broad cross-section of Jewish life
Hadar’s programs offer intensive, full-time learning experiences for anywhere from three days to a year. But many Jewish professionals can’t take the time away from work to attend an intense, full-time program. Instead, they look to Hadar for learning opportunities with a more limited time commitment.
For the past few years, author Abigail Pogrebin has partnered with Hadar to offer such a learning opportunity to two dozen Jews on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Pogrebin hosts a monthly class in her home, and between 15 and 25 people come to learn from Rabbi Shai Held or Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, dicuss the texts, and add Jewish meaning to their daily lives.
The author of “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish” and a daughter of Jewish feminist icon Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the younger Pogrebin was raised in a casually observant home but never went to Hebrew school. She became a Bat Mitzvah at age 40 and soon after, she first met the founding rabbis of Hadar.
“The three of them, each in different ways, were electrifying teachers,” the self-described “rabbi groupie” explained. “When it came to unpacking a text or an idea, they made me feel extremely challenged, and forced me think about my own life through Torah in a way that I'd actually doubted was possible.”
Pogrebin knew she wanted to learn from the Hadar rabbis more regularly and decided to host her own study group instead of attending one of the many learning programs Hadar already offers because she thought her friends would appreciate a casual environment. “Sometimes a familiar venue, someone’s living room... is a softer approach to very rigorous study,” she said.
And though they’re not in the beit midrash, Pogrebin has found that the learning resurfaces in everyday life. "There are concepts and themes that have woven through our learning, which have caused me to look at strangers differently, look at my most mundane interactions differently: the taxi driver, the guy behind the counter, the woman sitting on the sidewalk, the aged. I began to grasp the bedrock principle of b’tselem elohim (the image of God) in a more concrete way.”
Though Pogrebin’s study group is an example of how Hadar can bring Jewish ideas to non-traditional venues, many other Hadar programs adhere to more traditional learning approaches. Hadar offers learning sessions around the holidays that anyone can attend, weekly Talmud classes, a Community Beit Midrash, and much more.
The Jewish ideas brought to life at Hadar are always firmly rooted in Jewish texts, something Pogrebin believes is critical. “That’s really the challenge today for Judaism; so many Jews I know have not found the relevance in the text. They’re finding relevance in community and spirituality and relationships. All of those are valid, but Judaism starts and ends with the books.”
For Pogrebin, now a proud “learning addict,” her experiences with Hadar have been transformative, and they propelled her to continue to seek out deeper learning experiences. She’s currently penning a column for the Forward, “18 Holidays: 1 Wondering Jew”, where she’ll be immersing herself in the Jewish calendar for a year. But Pogrebin believes Hadar-style learning can be transformative for the entire Jewish community, not just herself.
“I truly believe that if Hadar could clone itself around the country, or if more centers of learning came close to Hadar's insistence on textual vibrancy, relevance, and depth, then there would be far less hand-wringing about the uncertain future of Jewish engagement or the sad state of Jewish illiteracy,” she said.
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