Speed learning” sounds a lot like speed dating, a mode of study designed perhaps to give a cursory introduction to a subject. But at The Jewish Center’s (TJC) community Tikkun Leil Shavuot, it is a yearly opportunity for presenters to explore Jewish texts that have personal meaning and share them in surprisingly intensive ways — within the 10 minutes allotted for each presentation and response.
Linda Milstein, TJC’s vice president of religious affairs, described the program created two years ago by the Tikkun Leil Shavuot planning committee, which she chairs. The format combines workshops led by lay scholars or local academics and the speed-learning sessions, at which congregants could share a text meaningful to them with small groups. A new feature began last year: a “Torah TED talk” — based on the popular Technology, Entertainment, Design presentations — this year to be offered by Rabbi Justus Baird, dean of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, who will speak about “Jewish Particuniversalism,” drawing from the Book of Jonah and Baird’s own multi-faith work.
Reports from presenters — there is a new crew every year — and participants at the Princeton synagogue’s 2017 tikkun point to the program’s success.
It was there that Ruth Schulman spoke about her evolving relationship with the phrase “choose life,” which appears in Deuteronomy 30:19. In aiming to illustrate that one way to choose life is by developing new understandings of prayers, she talked of receiving a letter years before from her daughter, who was on a Habonim gap year program in Israel. In the letter, Amy Adina, who was to die two years later from an aneurysm, reported to her mother that the first rains had arrived. The next day, Ruth said in her presentation, which she shared with NJJN, she was at the Shabbat service when the phrase praising God for making “the wind blow and the rain fall” appears for the first time in the Amidah’s second blessing.
“It was an unexpected connection — I was praying it and she was experiencing it,” Schulman said in her presentation. “Although we were thousands of miles away from each other, we were connected…. And two years later, when she died, that prayer helped me know…that we would remain connected through that memory.” This prayer, she told the people at her speed-learning table, “helped me find a way to choose life.”
Neil Litt, a tikkun committee member, said that what excited him about the idea of speed learning was that “congregants who had mostly never done anything like this before work at something that excites them and…share that excitement with other people.”
But, Milstein told NJJN, it can be challenging to recruit people to the process, convincing them they have something worthwhile to share or to take the risk of teaching about a text.
Lew Gantwerk, cochair of TJC’s social action committee, did not originally jump at the chance to be a presenter, but, he said, Milstein “made it seem like it was something that would be interesting to try…, something out of my comfort zone in a friendly context.”
He accepted and, in the end, he said, “I had a good time doing it.”
As his text he chose Marsha Falk’s translation of the Shema from Siddur Lev Shalem. It “really resonated with me,” he said, “in terms of what I would wish for a way that the world could be and the way we would interact with our children and what we could believe, and what I could honestly say is meaningful to me.”
Looking at Falk’s translation next to a more traditional one that Gantwerk provided, the people at his table talked about “how you can modernize, in some ways, the most basic and well-known prayer in the liturgy in a way that the language makes sense and the feelings express what you really feel.”
Brenda Zlatin, a member of Zamru, a local independent musical minyan, who said she sees herself as more of a listener than a teacher, was also hesitant. Her subject last year focused on the issue of “machloket l’shem shamayim,” “conflict for the sake of heaven.”
“I learned a lot from it,” said Zlatin. “People didn’t come and passively listen to someone who was an accomplished teacher; it was more peer-based, so that was very empowering.”
Joe Schwartz appreciated the opportunity to explore Og, king of Bashan, who had caught his interest when he read a full description, in Deuteronomy 3:11, about the king’s “iron bedstead.” The invitation to present at the speed learning was, Schwartz said, “an opportunity for me to study something and dig into a topic.” He provided his listeners with the biblical text, midrashim, and talmudic texts, and even a picture of what the bed may have looked like.
Debbi Dunn Solomon, a participant last year, appreciated the “interesting and thought-provoking” tikkun and found that the format “breaks a long evening of study into three very different learning components…, one lecture, one class, one hevruta,” studying in pairs.
“I think my main take-away was that it was not only an interesting, educational, and entertaining evening, but also an inspiring one for me personally,” speed-learning presenter Donna Gabai said about last year’s event. “I still find it difficult to believe that it led to my agreeing to give a summer drash. Translating learning into action — isn’t that what Torah study is ultimately all about?”