Rain was on the agenda on a recent Tuesday. Specifically, when do we start praying for it, on Sukkot, afterward, or some other time? And when should the prayers cease, at the beginning of Passover or at the end?
There were some tricky and confounding arguments, and of course, as when passionate students get together, some colorful insults ensued. In the debate, one pre-eminent talmudic scholar called another’s argument “as disagreeable as vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes.”
The passion for the rain debate trickled down to the nine students sitting around the table at Oheb Shalom Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in South Orange, although their language wasn’t as colorful as that of the sages.
Jean Stoloff felt strongly about rain’s significance year-round, not just during the rainy season, because “water is life,” but Vivian Perlmutter interjected that “you don’t ask for what you don’t need,” and therefore you only request rain during the rainy season. Rabbi Yeheskel Lebovic, spiritual leader of the Orthodox Congregation Ahavath Zion in Maplewood, taught this week’s lesson.
David Schechner, who founded the Tuesday Talmud class in 1994 when it was held in his law offices in West Orange, might have been pleased with the interaction; or he might have made his own exacting point, perhaps redirecting the conversation back into the text. But he was not in the room. He died in April 2018, and the class nearly ended without his
For decades, Schechner coordinated everything by hand and by snail mail, from recruiting members to managing the roster of rabbis from every denomination who led the class on a rotating basis, to sending out each week’s materials. He taught the class himself if there was ever a glitch in the lineup, with his unique combination of humor and intensity. The group, regularly numbering 30 or more, tackled complicated legal arguments with wit and camaraderie, but approached the text with respect. Students were mostly lawyers with a sprinkle of retirees and other professionals in the mix. As time passed, the average age increased as well and the population shifted to mostly retirees.
Schechner was so passionate about the class that he celebrated his 87th birthday there in 2016, bringing his family along for an hour of learning at Oheb Shalom, his synagogue, where the class had since moved. “Not a day goes by that at some time during the day I don’t come to a stop and think of something I learned in the class,” he told his guests on that occasion.
After his death at 89 from congestive heart failure, there were several unsuccessful attempts to keep the class going: one would-be leader moved out of state, another died. A few members enlisted the help of Rabbi Marc Cooper of Oheb Shalom to coordinate the rabbis.
“I took the class on for David,” said Cooper, who started it back up in January. “It’s his legacy. I felt an obligation to perpetuate something so important to him.”
On this cold March day, just nine people, mostly retirees, sat around the table. Among them was Jerry Albenberg of West Orange, who has been with the class almost since its inception. He bemoaned the shrinking number of participants and roster of rabbis who had taught regularly. Since the reboot, most of the classes have been taught by Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis, including Lebovic, and Albenberg said he misses the variety. He recalled that Schechner used to say he could ask the same question three or four weeks in a row and get different answers. “That was really educational because you have different perspectives from different movements,” said Albenberg.
Cooper acknowledged that enlisting rabbis to teach has proved challenging.
Alan Bernstein, who comes every Tuesday from Mendham, appreciates being able to jump into the learning without much background. “I’m a Reform Jew. I learn something here that I was never taught before and suddenly I’m able to delve into something that everyone else was studying all these years.”
Babette Tenzer of Millburn, a relative latecomer who started attending about two- and-a-half years ago when she retired, is a leading force behind the resurrection of the class. She promised that the next few classes will include leaders from a variety of other denominations.
Before they had reached the end of the section, without resolving the question of when to ask for rain, the class drew to a close. “Rabbi, do you want to move quickly through the last section?” asked Stoloff hopefully.
Lebovic declined. “It’s too complicated” to move through quickly, he said. The pressing questions would have to wait another week.
Stoloff may have been disappointed, but Lebovic, who was teaching the class for the first time, was not. The lively conversation surprised him. “I didn’t expect such an attentive class,” he said, promising to return. “I really enjoyed it.”
Schechner would, no doubt, have been delighted.
The class meets most Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange. For more information, contact Babette Tenzer at email@example.com.