By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
PLANO — Every year, members of the Chabad movement take part in an effort to learn the entire Talmud as a group, splitting up portions of the massive text to make it more manageable.
For a smaller community like the Chabad of Plano/Collin County, that means teaming up with other groups throughout the country. This year, the Chabad rabbis in Plano found a local study partner to enhance the experience for their community.
On Nov. 21, college-age students from the Texas Torah Institute, located on Frankford Road in Dallas, came to teach in the traditional yeshiva fashion at Chabad of Plano.
“I’ve always wanted the Chabad of Plano to bring some deeper and more interactive learning to our members,” Rabbi Menachem Block said before the session. “We do have a lot of classes, mostly frontal teaching. The teacher comes in and teaches and the people learn. This learning will be different. Each member will be paired up with a yeshiva student. This is where the partnership with TTI will come in. We don’t have enough staff (on our own) for study partners.”
The one-on-one instruction of Yeshiva Night may have resembled the ordinary activity for the students, but it was truly a new experience for both the evening’s students and instructors.
“It’s good to hear from somebody who doesn’t think the same way as you,” said TTI student Moshe Greenspon. “Most of us think very, very similarly. It’s a nice change of pace.”
“We think in a different way from how they do,” agreed Zvi Keet, one of the learners on the Chabad side. “They say, ‘You know, I never thought of that.’ ”
It took no time at all for the approximately 15 student-teacher pairs to get into the text, Tractate Megillah, which deals with Purim. Within a minute of sitting down, there came the sound of discussion from every bench, rising into a clamor of Jewish learning that did not let up for well more than an hour.
Sharona Ohayon bought refreshments, which were sponsored by Simon Olshansky in honor of his mother’s yahrzeit.
“This is a great opportunity,” said Rabbi Moshe Tropper, an instructor at TTI. “Although (the yeshiva students) graduated high school, they are on the younger side, and this is a good opportunity to share what they are doing.”
That concept of learning while teaching was shared by his students.
“The feeling was we’d come in and be the expert, but we’re a team,” Shlomo Zalman Kaufman said. “Through our coordinated efforts, we learn it.”
“You have to try and make it interesting, get their insights, not just teaching,” said Baruch Wexler.
The Chabad learners, taking the role of students, ranged from newcomers to those who grew up learning in the yeshiva fashion. Most were two or three times as old as the TTI students, who took on the role of teachers. But as TTI student Eli Rosenstock pointed out, age is relative. There are rabbis in their 40s at TTI, and newcomers to Talmud who are much older than that.
His classmate Moshe Rothman agreed.
“I never sat down with anyone in the community (to teach), especially two to three times my age to learn Torah with. It was interesting and a fun experience,” Rothman said.
Among the Chabad learners, there was a lot of praise for the TTI students.
“I like the way that he explained it. A lot of patience,” said Gabriel Herschberg, who had not studied Talmud this way before.
Velvel Kantor said it reminded him of a “study buddies” program at Chabad world headquarters in Brooklyn.
“It became easy to do. It’s actually comforting,” Kantor said.
As for delving into the Talmud itself, Kantor summed it up by saying, “The Gemara always disagrees. It never answers the question in a straightforward way.”
That provided some comfort to Keet.
“It’s intimidating at the beginning. But you realize with five or six different answers, there’s no stupid questions,” he said.
“No question, perfect,” Kantor said of the partnership. “No ‘I know more than you’ experience. It may have been the first time he was reading it. He wasn’t scholarly in this process; he’s learning with me.”
Coming from that background, what the students went through was familiar to one of the Chabad leaders, too.
“I remember the first time I taught outside the yeshiva. It’s like a different world,” said Rabbi Yehuda Horowitz, director of programming for Chabad, who helped make Yeshiva Night possible.
“Every yeshiva student learns, but wants to teach, share with others,” Rabbi Block said. “We are giving them a chance to do that.”
It’s the kind of learning envisioned during the annual Talmud exercise. Traditionally, the Chabad year of Talmud ends with the 19th of Kislev as the finishing date, when the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad, was released from prison, “seen as a sign from on high his teachings were accepted,” Rabbi Horowitz said.
Being part of the two groups working together had a lot of meaning for Jesse Ohayon, who studied with Chabad and praised the area’s resources.
“The main thing, these boys were not Chabad boys. The Plano community is growing,” he said. “We are drawing people north. There’s no way this community can’t grow. They don’t have to go to the south community, because we have this.”