By Dan Pine / Jweekly
Rabbi Joel Landau compared the sound generated in the San Francisco Community Beit Midrash to the din of a stock exchange in full trading frenzy.
“I think we can throw in the word ‘cacophony’ here,” said the spiritual leader of San Francisco’s Adath Israel, one of several Orthodox rabbis co-leading the 6-month-old Beit Midrash (House of Study). “The noise that permeates the room is the collective sound of everybody doing their thing.”
Their “thing” is straight-up Torah study, with an added touch of San Francisco free spirit. Launched in May and meeting one or two Thursday evenings a month, the Beit Midrash features between four and seven rabbis who serve as facilitators, covering topics such as Jewish mysticism, halachah (Jewish law) and the Torah portion of the week.
Held in a different San Francisco Orthodox synagogue each time, the sessions have attracted up to 50 men and women of all levels of Jewish observance and education. Some participants form ad hoc groups, others form traditional chevruta, or study pairs. There are no rules, and there is no cost to attend.
“There’s a great feeling when we get together,” Landau added. “You have Orthodox, non-Orthodox, every type of Jewish person represented. We’re all cousins in some way, shape or form.”
Alex Goldshteyn, 29, who created the Beit Midrash, said the primary goal was to promote unity in the local Jewish community.
“Unless you have a strong Torah study base, you’re not going anywhere as a community,” said Goldshteyn, a professional accountant and Hebrew Academy graduate. “Through the centuries, Torah study is what universally unified Jews.”
Initially, he approached four San Francisco rabbis: Gedalia Potash of Chabad of Noe Valley, Ahron Hecht of Richmond Torah Center of Chabad, Shlomo Zarchi of Congregation Chevra Thilim and Landau of Adath Israel.
“They were gung-ho right away,” Goldshteyn remembered.
Their four synagogues have hosted the initial sessions. Goldshteyn’s goal is to recreate the atmosphere of a classic beit midrash, with every Orthodox rabbi in the city participating, recreating the “really cool buzz” of a yeshiva in action.
Goldshteyn and the participating rabbis knew the Beit Midrash would take on a life of its own. At the first session in May, one rabbi, scheduled to give a half-hour lecture at the end, decided to skip the lecture because participants were already on a roll, talking animatedly among themselves in small-group discussions. He recalled the rabbi saying, “This is too nice. I can’t break it up.”
Over the course of the five subsequent sessions, the S.F. Community Beit Midrash became the collaborative enterprise Goldshteyn had envisioned, which in itself is an achievement. Already the group has more than 350 members on its Facebook page.
It is rare for the city’s Orthodox rabbinate to team up en masse on a project such as this, Landau said. “This is something that hasn’t been done.”
Meanwhile, the group has ventured outside the study hall, holding a Lag B’Omer event earlier this year. Other holiday events will follow in the months to come.
Though the Beit Midrash for now is staying put in San Francisco, Goldshteyn said sessions are open to all. Jews in other Bay Area regions are more than welcome.
As far as the organizers are concerned, the more the merrier.
“The goal is to complement each other and to create a joint mosaic,” Landau said. “This is a fundamental priority in Judaism: not to be separate from each other but to be together. We are one big family.”