January 9, 2013
LINK to daylong learning
On any given night, upward of 75 Jewish men and women cram into a building at 1453 S. Robertson Blvd. to study Torah, discuss religious texts and educate themselves on what it means to live a Jewish life.
From sunup to sundown, they come and they learn and they pray — just a day in the life at LINK, the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel.
Rabbi Asher Brander, who was the rabbi at Westwood Kehilla and teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school for 20 years, started LINK in 2002. It’s a kollel, a place where rabbinic scholars study among themselves and teach people in the community.
For nine years, it was located at Kehilla before moving to Pico-Robertson in 2011. Seven days a week, classes are taught on everything from Talmud to Psalms. High Holy Days rituals are covered, as is halachah, Jewish law.
“At LINK, there is a very vibrant, dynamic environment, and that creates a tremendous connection with the Torah, HaShem and Judaism,” Brander said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”
Along with the traditional classes on Jewish texts and law that are held from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. nearly every day, LINK offers prayer services, space for independent study, and courses on everyday situations and issues. The 10 rabbis and instructors teach, in English, about character development, marriage, parenting, dating, finding a soul mate and why bad things happen to good people.
Among the five or six classes taught per day — and more than 30 per week — some are solely for men or women, but others are open to both. The schedule is revised four times a year — during the High Holy Days, the fall, winter and spring — and four guest speakers visit each year. In February, LINK is hosting a Shabbaton with Rabbi Mordechai Becher, a senior lecturer from Gateways, an organization that helps Jews connect to their religion.
Rabbi Eli Stern, LINK outreach director and an instructor, said the kollel is for everyone from every background and affiliation.
“We are teaching Torah. We are not preaching how someone should practice. It’s not about preaching to people. It’s about learning with people,” he said.
Since moving to Pico-Robertson, attendance at classes has grown significantly, doubling from 75 to 150 people coming every week, according to Brander.
The move from Westwood meant adapting to the needs of a new neighborhood, too. Now it is in the thick of one of Los Angeles’ most vibrant Jewish communities and among a variety of Orthodox shuls. As a result, LINK has been transformed from an introductory setting to one that welcomes all levels of learning.
“There is a wide variety of classes,” Brander said. “It changed because any institution needs to be sensitive to the needs of community. Pico-Robertson has its own set of needs, and it’s a different type of clientele [than Westwood]. Obviously Jews are Jews, but Pico-Robertson has a lot going on, and we cater to what the niches are.”
LINK is a nonprofit, and during the first year it was open on Robertson, it didn’t charge dues to members of its synagogue division. Even now, people can come in any time free of charge for services as well as for learning.
Jews can walk into LINK not only to learn, but to connect with people in their community as well. The Torah Learning for Collegiates program (TLC), led by Shoshana Rivka Bloom, is for women only and meets every Tuesday night. It features local and out-of-town speakers each week who talk about relationships, Jewish study, history, law and hashgacha (kosher supervision). Among the two dozen or so women who show up every week, the majority are single and in their 20s.
“LINK fills a void ... in the Pico-Robertson area,” Bloom said. “The rabbis are very talented in reaching out to people who have very little or close to no background in Judaism. Rabbi Brander is warm and loving and cares about every Jew. Everyone feels welcome. It’s really a wonderful thing.”
Mitch Karp, who lives in the neighborhood, has been going to LINK for the past year. He takes classes on tehillim (psalms) and the Rambam and studies there on his own. Before it came along, he hadn’t found his spiritual home.
“At the other shuls, something was definitely missing,” he said. “It had maybe the learning, but I didn’t feel connected to people. LINK has the learning, the prayer and the connection with the rabbis.”
Karp said that in the community, there is no one-stop shop for all-day learning and prayer.
“I can stay there 24/7 if I wanted to do that. There isn’t any other place on Pico where you can go early and stay as long as you want. It’s more like a yeshiva, but it’s also very open as well.”
Another student, Elliot Cavalier, has been taking classes at LINK since 2002. He said that it’s a valuable space because “it brings Torah to the masses and makes it accessible to the masses. There are a lot of classes geared toward people who don’t have a background [in Jewish studies].”
At LINK, Brander and his colleagues are there primarily to provide the many students and members with the education they never received at a Jewish day school. In addition, there is a program called The Beis, which has a double meaning. It’s pronounced “base” in English and means “house” in Hebrew. It’s for men who attended Jewish day schools but have drifted and not yet found their way back to Torah study.
Stern said that LINK doesn’t care about the level of observance of potential students, or if they’re a beginner or an expert.
“The main thing is that you’re interested in learning,” he said. “We have a very eclectic group of people who are learning in this neighborhood. They are coming here on a regular basis and learning the skills to empower themselves to one day pick up a text and study on their own. It should be the goal of every Jew.”
What makes LINK special, according to Brander, is that any and every kind of Jew can enter the building and begin his or her learning.
“We have under the same roof many different people from different walks of life. We have Jews that are not observant to Jews that are very religious. We have people wearing white shirts and black pants, and some people wear jeans and T-shirts. There are Persians, French people, Ashkenazim, men and women. There is a tremendous sense of diversity. People feel very welcome. The Torah does the talking.”