With a long days practicing law as a government attorney, Jill Gerstenfield of Rockville, MD, could not envision waking up at six a.m. for the rabbi’s daily Talmud class. But the tractate of Sotah fascinated Gerstenfield, who attended a Georgetown University class on Jewish and American Law. “I started to read about Sotah,” the Temple-era response to a woman suspected of adultery, “and several cases involving U.S. law and establishing paternity and found the area fascinating.”
Her local Chabad representative, Rabbi Menachem Bluming of Chabad of Potomac recommended Gerstenfield to JNet, a new Rohr Foundation project emanating from Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch. JNet, the Jewish Learning Network, pairs Jews who want to learn more about Judaism with Jews who want to teach or study by phone for a half-hour a week. JNet offers phone cards to eliminate long distance fees, learning materials via email, and expert guidance for questions along the way.
Now 526 learning pairs strong, JNet’s name is also indicative of its place among the network of Chabad centers. “JNet extends the reach of Chabad houses,” said program coordinator Rabbi Yossi Refson. Following a six-month pilot program period, JNet was rolled out as a resource at this year’s International Conference of Shluchim. “This program adds another layer to the educational outreach work of Chabad-Lubavitch,” explained Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Vice Chairman of Merkos. “It creates an opportunity for traditional Beit-Midrash style Torah study for anyone, anywhere, and at their convenience.”
“There’s something special about not being part of a group but having your own personal study partner,” said Rabbi Boruch Klar of Lubavitch of Essex County, NJ. There are other perks, according to Gerstenfield: “I can be in my bathrobe, lounge with book in front of me, writing notes in my Talmud in the privacy of my own home.”
A growing number of parents of young children, people with physical challenges, overbooked minions, and those intimidated by the thought of entering a synagogue turn to JNet for a dose of personalized Jewish learning by phone each week. So far, JNet participants are between 18 and 70, and the male to female participant ratio is 55:45, but that fluctuates by the week. David Goldman, a pharmaceutical company executive, schedules his JNet time before commuting home. Amy Gordon, a graduate of SUNY Binghamton, has caught up with her JNet teacher, Rochel Kugel, in the car.
The flexibility of the program also appeals to JNet teachers. As a school music teacher in Brooklyn, NY, as a mother of two daughters, ages two and six months, ,b>Hindel Levitin finds it “a little hard” to envision committing to study in person when there are so many other demands on her time. But she squeezes JNet teaching in while the babies nap, before teaching begins.
Levitin’s JNet student, Leah Lawrence of Meridian, ID, discovered the program on the web. “We deliver” was the tagline that caught Lawrence’s eye. Recently displaced from her Louisiana home by Hurricane Katrina, Lawrence moved with her family to Idaho to be closer to her grown daughter. Lawrence enjoys “speaking to other women and finding how Judaism relates to a woman’s life.” Just a month into JNet learning, Lawrence already considers Levitin a friend. “If I have a question, I have Hindel’s email address and phone number.”
Fashioning friends out of strangers requires emotional dexterity. Rabbi Yehuda Dukes, JNet’s chavruta coordinator, interviews all who inquire through the organization’s attractive, easy-to-use website (www.JNet.org) or call JNet’s hotline at (718)467-4400. The information is fed into the database and matches are made, with care. Compatibility is based on similarities in age range, educational background, occupation, interests, and gut instinct. The process can feel like arranging a marriage, but “without the lifetime commitment,” Rabbi Dukes said.
Not only does JNet match pairs, it stays in touch with both parties: a lesson learned from the pilot program. Study relationships “need constant maintenance,” said Rabbi Refson. Missed messages, learning questions, and the need for re-matches are handled during the course of JNet’s follow up calls.
Teaching a fellow Jew about Judaism is the mother’s milk of Chabad Lubavitch Chassidim. Volunteer coordinator Rabbi Mendel Silberstein calls lists of community members from Pittsburgh to LA to Toronto. Cold calling has its perils but many are excited by the idea of being able to fulfill the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s dictum, “if you know the letter Aleph, teach Aleph.” Others need more encouragement. Rabbi Mendel Silberstein tells them, “You are not teaching a classroom full of people, it’s just a conversation over the phone with a friend.”