Picture this: 10 young professionals sitting around a living room on a weekday evening, eating snacks, drinking wine, laughing, talking and studying sources on some not-so-small questions like: “Is there a Jewish hell?” “Does God exist?” and “Why be Jewish?” If anyone had any doubts about the vibrancy of American Jewish life today, they should sit in on an Eser session.
Eser is an experience of Jewish tradition coming alive in a casual, interactive and friendly space. I’ve taught for Eser for two years now and it has become a highlight of my time at Hebrew College. Although I am a facilitator and teacher, I’ve come to see myself as a fellow Eser learner and community member. I look forward to getting to know the people in my group as we look at ancient and modern texts anew and broaden our life’s perspectives through personal sharing and critical dialogue. What makes Eser such an impressive program is that it provides diverse Jewish sources on a vast array of topics that are genuinely interesting and relevant to our lives. And it intentionally creates a learning environment that encourages all voices and perspectives without requiring previous experience studying Jewish texts or having a certain Jewish background.
Before I started teaching for Eser, I wondered what made people want to take two hours after their busy work days each week to sit and study Torah with strangers. What I learned is that people are eager for Jewish knowledge and are curious about what Judaism can say to them at this point in time. When given a dynamic and accessible opportunity to do that, they will take it.
I’ve consistently seen Eser participants express surprise when noticing how Jewish tradition addresses many personal and political issues we face today, excitement when encountering points of view they deem counter-cultural and intrigue when hearing the myriad voices and perspectives our tradition holds. I’ve been touched when participants say they see more of themselves in Jewish tradition than they thought possible and that they are walking away wanting to learn more.
What I find most exciting of all is that Eser helps us to appreciate the practice of Torah Lishma, of learning Torah and engaging in dialogue for its own sake. This is something we don’t all have the privilege to do very often, and it reminds us that learning can form the basis of a strong community, one where personal and intellectual growth, productive disagreement and meaning-making is possible. I know we each end the Eser season feeling rejuvenated and inspired by what we’ve accomplished together. I can’t help but think, “What a refreshing way to be in the world!”
Ilana Zietman is entering her final year of rabbinical school at Hebrew College, where she is also pursuing a master’s degree in Jewish education. During her time in rabbinical school, Ilana continues to enjoy teaching, learning and praying with people of various ages and flavors of Jewish identity and practice. Ilana is currently the rabbinic fellow at Tufts University Hillel and has taught for Eser for the past two years.
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