By Deb Silverthorn
Rumor has it that the true breakfast of champions starts at 7 a.m. every Tuesday. At that time, a community men’s Torah study group gathers at the Dallas Area Torah Association (DATA) offices on Forest Lane in Dallas. Whether a dozen or four attendees show up on any given morning, the conversation and learning are guaranteed to be spirited, engaging and meaningful.
“This program is a good example of where the movements can meet and learn for the benefit of b’nei Yisroel. I think that it is refreshing to have a program for Reform and Conservative Jewish men that is taught by an observant Orthodox rabbi. It proves that we CAN all get along,” said Mark Fisher, a member of Temple Shalom, who has been attending the class almost since its inception. “Our Dallas Jewish community is very special and we’d love to have more men join us in this really incredible opportunity.”
The class, taught for the last four years by Torah Day School of Dallas CFO and COO Rabbi Deon Nathan, takes place at DATA, but is an unaffiliated program. Participants come from congregations throughout the community and the class — for which there is no charge — is open to men of all ages. The coffee and baked goods (provided by Rabbi Deon’s wife and daughters) deliver a bit of extra get-up-and-go for the early meeting time. But, for most who stop in on their way to work, the inspiration the class provides is more energizing than any caffeine pump.
“The intellectual power of the men in the room is impressive. There are lawyers, and doctors and businessmen in the class — members of the boards of many organizations — but if not for this class, they might never cross paths,” Nathan said. “I have students who quote Socrates and Plato in discussions of Torah, and it isn’t only the students who learn something each week. More often than not, I too become the student.”
Nathan, a Dallas native and the son of Sandy and Michael Nathan, was a member of the first class of Yavneh Academy, before transferring to Rabbi Oscar Fasman Yeshiva in Skokie, Ilinois. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Judaic Studies from Hebrew Theological College in Chicago before moving to Israel. During his 13 years in Israel, he earned his MBA in International Business at Bar-Ilan University and worked in private banking and with Israeli startups. Nathan is a certified mohel, sofer STAM (scribe), shochet and mashgiach kashrus (kashrut supervisor). He is the husband of Yehudit and father of seven.
“Somehow the class always hits notes of politics and religion, but the conversations are open and honest and always of the utmost respect,” Nathan said.
First spearheaded by Joel Shickman, of blessed memory, and Congregation Shearith Israel’s Rabbi Elon Sunshine (no relation to CSI’s current senior rabbi), the group met at a coffee shop. Throughout the years, the learning has been led by many rabbis, including Bill Gershon, Joe Menashe, Adam Raskin and Yoni Sonnenblick.
Nathan provides the group with articles and readings that test the state and future of progressive Judaism, and the group often challenges his observant beliefs in the laws, as they apply to modern Jews.
“I had somewhat of an interest in religious school as a child, but in the last 30 years or so I’ve had a new appreciation for learning more extensively,” said Morton Prager, a member of Temple Emanu-El, who has also studied under that congregation’s rabbis Levi Olan, David Stern and Sheldon Zimmerman. “This class has allowed me to study books of the Bible that aren’t the ‘go to’ or of regular review, and from start to finish, we just keep going and we just keep learning.”
Prager spent much of his career as a medical researcher and a professor of medical ethics and philosophy to medical students, and retired only at the age of 92. He said he enjoys the company of the mix of men in the class.
“We argue and interpret and discuss the modern interpretations,” he said. “We might not always agree, but the conversation is always respectful.”
Many of the students have remained constant throughout the two decades. The group began with study of the weekly Torah portion, but soon embarked on a long-term journey, and completed reading the entire Tanach — Torah, Prophets and Writings — word by word, first in 2012.
They are now revisiting the Prophets and studying Samuel I. Participants say that, even though the material is the same, a new leader means different discussions.
“It’s amazing as we read through how humans haven’t really changed in 3,000 years; issues of trust, of tribes and families,” said Fisher, the group together celebrating simchas and suffering great losses. “We’ve learned to study in new ways together. The beauty of Judaism is to share issues and imperfections and to understand that our religion is a guidebook by which to live a more meaningful life.”
For information on joining in the class, email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or call 214-923-5101.