The historic building housing B’nai Israel: The Downtown Synagogue may be old, but the congregation inside approaches Judaism through a contemporary lens. Located minutes from the Baltimore Inner Harbor, the Modern Orthodox congregation is one of the longest continually operating synagogues in the state of Maryland. As part of its dedication to welcoming Jews of all demographics, B’nai Israel recently launched a year-long adult education program in partnership with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the Modern Orthodox rabbinical school located in Riverdale, New York.
The new monthly series, “Contemporary Issues Through a Torah Lens,” started in July 2017 as an added component of B’nai Israel’s existing Torah Cafe program. Torah Cafe, which is cosponsored by the B’nai Israel Young Adults (BIYA) program, provides an evening of good food, social networking, and interactive discussions on Jewish topics. For the new contemporary issues series, visiting scholars from YCT lead each session in the interactive, conversational style that defines the Torah Cafe program.
“The goal is to create a downtown beit midrash [study hall]. With that in mind, we want to appeal to a range in the Jewish community across categories of age, gender, ethnicity, and branch of Judaism,” said Rick Gwynallen, organizer of the Torah Cafe series. “We’re very pleased that in a short time a core group of very engaged learners are finding the Torah Cafe series a valuable resource.”
Rabbi Benjamin Greenberg, director of adult engagement at Central Synagogue in New York, and a 2009 graduate of YCT, presented the last session of the contemporary issues series and will continue to lead the program at B’nai Israel moving forward. “The joint learning program between YCT and B’nai Israel is a wonderful way to bring the Torah from the YCT beit midrash into the Baltimore community. Through the program, we engage in high-level discourse around topics at the intersection of Judaism and contemporary society, integrating the wisdom of Jewish tradition into the conversation,” he said.
The most recent session, “From The Maccabees To The IDF: What Makes A Jewish Army?” took place on Nov. 28. Thirteen people from diverse Jewish backgrounds participated in the interactive discussion. “Torah Cafe is a great opportunity to delve into a topic in an intimate group with a learned scholar in a supportive environment,” said Ilene Harris, a member of B’nai Israel’s board. “I have immensely enjoyed and learned from the Torah Cafe discussions.”
Rabbi Etan Mintz, rabbi of B’nai Israel, described the “Contemporary Issues Through a Torah Lens” series as “a highlight of the week for community members,” while Rabbi Greenberg called the program “a personal highlight” for himself.
“I have greatly enjoyed sharing the Torah from the YCT Beit Midrash with the B’nai Israel community and bridging the spiritual and thought worlds of the yeshiva and the synagogue,” Rabbi Greenberg said.
For Maraji Gwynallen, a member of B'nai Israel, the contemporary approach to Torah is what makes this series stand out. “For me, this Torah Cafe series is an opportunity to go beyond usual Torah study. It applies Torah principles to real life situations,” she said.
By Malka Goldberg
Malka Goldberg is the Community News editor for Kol HaBirah.