October 15, 2007

Wrestling with texts and observing shoes in havruta, a study partnership

With Felegosh, at the entrance to our havruta campus,
on Lavista and Briarcliff Roads, Atlanta
While a quick glance at the photo might suggest that I am promoting a popular coffeehouse chain, I aim to praise another kind of commerce. A transaction in which no monies are exchanged and whose value is incalculable: a havruta [Aramaic: study partner].

The glowing, incandescent Felegosh is my Torah MiTzion program havruta. Eighteen years ago, this Sherut Leumi (Israel National Service Corps) volunteer alumna rode on her father’s shoulders as he walked Ethiopian lowlands, steppes, and semi-desert for six months with his family and extended community. Their destination? Addis Ababa, the African nation’s capital from where a plane brought them to their ancestral home, Israel.

This year, Felegosh is an emissary in Atlanta, Georgia, where her team of Bnei Akiva volunteers is working with the local Jewish community to strengthen Jewish identity and instill a love for Israel and study of Torah through havrutot [plural of havruta], Shabbat and festival celebrations, community programming, and other kinds of informal education activities.

While Jewish tradition has always valued learning with others, learning with a partner is special.
I have learned much from my teachers, but from my friends more than my teachers.
— From the Talmud (BT Ta'anit 7a)

For our most heterogeneous study partnership, mutual respect and affection help bridge differences in our ages and cultural backgrounds. And though Felegosh and I approach our Jewish tradition from vastly different worldviews and assumptions, and our religious observance and practices are at almost polar-opposite ends of a continuum, we are learning much and well as we tap into the differences.

What have we been studying since Felegosh arrived in August?
  • Selected paragraphs on repentance by Shlomo Aviner and Rabbi Avigdor Neventzal (contemporary Jerusalem rabbis and ideologues of the national camp in Israel) and excerpts from Hilchot tshuva (Laws of Repentance) by Maimonides, the 12th century Spanish-born Talmudist, philosopher, astronomer, and physician.
  • The d'var Torah (words of Torah) that my cousins wrote on the invitation to the presentation of a hand-lettered Torah scroll commissioned as an ilui neshama, an elevation of soul (or spirit) of Noam Yaakov Mayerson, of blessed memory: son, brother, uncle, and friend killed in the Second Lebanon War.
  • Psalm 119
Yet I am learning not just by studying texts but also by noticing the attitudes that drive much of my partner’s input.

Last week, for example, we sat at a table where Felegosh was squinting in the light of the setting sun while speakers broadcast loud music over our heads. Both distractions bothered me, and so I asked, “Do you want to move to a shadier spot, and should I ask the barista to lower the volume?” “Not at all,” her reply. “These are mere incidentals to our business, our learning. Almost nothing merits distracting or interrupting us.”

It has been said that if you want to learn from your rabbis [Hebrew, Aramaic: teacher], study how they ties their shoes. And so I am studying how Felegosh “ties” her turquoise Crocs!