A 28-year-old struggling writer walked up to a checkout counter at Whole Foods in Tarzana. “What aisle is the Torah study on?” he asked.
“Oh, you mean the class with the rabbi? That’s in the back near the nuts,” the woman at the register said.
She wasn’t being pejorative — the Torah study really is in the back near the bulk bins of nuts and trail mix. I should know. I’m the nut teaching Torah in a market on Wednesdays.
In my 20-plus years as a Jewish educator, I never thought I would be teaching Torah in a supermarket. But then again, I am pretty sure that the two dozen or so students who regularly participate in the class never thought they would be studying Jewish text every week, let alone doing so surrounded by organic produce and herbal supplements.
It is an eclectic group of students that continues to grow with each passing week. In addition to the 28-year-old writer, who is not Jewish and joined our group after a few weeks of listening on the periphery, we have a group of 40-something moms who attend after yoga or in the midst of their shopping. There are a few out-of-work men and women who thought lunch and conversation were a good way to fill their now-empty schedules. We are blessed to have at least six grandmothers who add wisdom and perspective to our discussions. We are Jews and non-Jews; members of our congregation, Temple Judea; members of other congregations; the unaffiliated; twice-a-year Jews; minyan makers; lifetime adult learners and first-timers.
There is nothing new in what we are doing. The biblical book of Nehemiah records the return of the Israelites from Babylonian exile in 537 BCE. Among them was Ezra the Scribe, a scholar and leader whose knowledge of Torah was equal to that of Moses. Ezra saw that while the people had returned from Babylon and rebuilt the Temple, they were not making time for Judaism in their lives. They were busy with the pressures of the day — just as we are. And so Ezra had a revolutionary idea. If they wouldn’t come to the Temple, he would bring the Temple to them. And thus began the twice-weekly practices of reading the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays that continues in synagogues to this day.
Why those days? Because those were the market days, when the most people were gathered in the town square, transacting business, meeting, greeting and creating community. Ezra saw this as an opportunity, indeed a mitzvah — a sacred duty to bring Torah to the people. He began to read and teach the Torah and people gathered around to listen. Invariably they would discuss and engage with one another and with the sacred text and it would leave an imprint on their lives. They began to see the world, even if just for that afternoon, through the lens of the Jewish narrative. That perspective informed their business dealings, broadened their worldview, and deepened their relationships with each other and the Holy. It did this in large part because Torah and its teaching met them where they were, physically and spiritually, and were thus immediately relevant to their lives.
Public-space Judaism is a growing trend in North American Judaism. Eva Stern, director of training at the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), says her organization has been promoting the concept for the past seven years. She cites numerous examples of rabbis conducting Talmud study in gyms and civic centers, congregations setting up tables at farmers’ markets during Passover and Chanukah to demonstrate cooking techniques and conduct holiday tastings. Early childhood educators also lead children’s book readings in bookstores and on playgrounds.
“The concept of location can be a barrier to engagement in Jewish life,” Stern said. “Those on the inside don’t often see the barrier that a synagogue building, or walls covered in Hebrew words or lined with Jewish books, can be to someone making that initial step into Jewish learning. Public-space Judaism is meant to be just that a first step along a journey to deeper Jewish knowledge and engagement.”
This is the very idea behind the Torah study at Whole Foods. It’s a way to engage students of Torah where they are, by moving outside the walls of the synagogue and into the routine of their daily lives.
Like most rabbis, I have tried everything short of standing on my head to get people into my shul for prayer or study — certainly many come, and some do so regularly. Still many don’t or won’t, and then there are those who don’t even know it’s an option. I felt an obligation to go to them. And so for 45 minutes every Wednesday, the back tables of Whole Foods Tarzana become our beit knesset, our gathering place.
The students come each week because they have made new friends and connections among a diverse group gathered for a similar purpose. They come each week because the Jewish narrative of Torah gives insight and perspective to their lives. They come each week because it’s easy to drop in.
So the next time you are in the market for community, for connection, for deeper meaning and Jewish learning, stop by Whole Foods in Tarzana. If that’s too far or the time is inconvenient, shop around. With the growing trend of public-space Judaism, you’re bound to find a study group. Indeed, if the movement is successful, we may very well find you.
Dan Moskovitz is a rabbi at Temple Judea (templejudea.com), a Reform congregation in Tarzana.