As more and more Jewish adults are using opportunities to become educated in Judaism, sponsors of adult-educational services like Chabad-Lubavitch work creatively to develop effective programs that help adults make up for lost time and missed opportunities.
The chavruta experience has been unique to the traditional yeshiva model, where two students are paired together as they tackle a rabbinic statement, arguing thesis and antithesis and sometimes splitting hairs in the classical Talmudic dialectic.
It's a model as old as the Talmud itself, yet its pedagogical value is appreciated in modern settings as well, so that many beyond the yeshiva have implemented chavruta-style learning situations in their classroom dynamic.
Not everyone, however, can make it to a yeshiva. JNet, a project of Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch, the Lubavitch educational division and generously underwritten by the Rohr Foundation, launched its innovative phone study partnerships in November of 2006, as a way of bringing the benefits of Yeshiva chavruta study across a vast geographical spectrum.
“Chabad’s goal is to leave no Jew untouched,” says Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Vice Chairman of Merkos. “JNet serves to broaden our already extensive global network of Shluchim to reach those who live in remote areas, those with overbooked schedules or physical challenges.”
While participants are looking for someone to fill the gaps of their Jewish education, the volunteers generally hail from established Chabad communities, and are inculcated and raised in an environment that promotes outreach.
“JNet is my way of fulfilling the Lubavither Rebbe’s directive ‘if you know the letter Aleph, teach Aleph,’” says JNet volunteer, Sara Katz. “As a perk, my own knowledge is being developed while I research material for my weekly chavruta session.”
With phone calls pouring in from places as exotic as Nigeria, Alaska, New Zealand, Thailand, Denmark, and Pakistan, JNet volunteers often utilize internet services such as Skype and WebCam to cross transatlantic barriers.
“The results from JNet have been phenomenal,” said Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, JNet director. “From a 30 minute weekly phone conversation, many have started lighting Shabbat candles, going to shul, putting on tefilin daily and taking on various mitzvot as a direct result of translating their learning into action.”
To date, Jnet has paired 750 men and women, ranging from ages 18 through 70, with Chabad volunteers worldwide, says Rabbi Yehuda Dukes, coordinator of the program.
JNet makes matches between individuals wanting to study specific Jewish texts, and teachers or partners proficient in the requested subject matter.
Often the success of a chavruta is no different from that of a successful match: personality, family dynamics, profession and age are carefully considered before a match is made.
That a deep connection evolves between chavrutas is evident from the recent road trip taken by Graydon and Robyn Drown. They had been learning steadily for one year with their respective chavrutas and wanted finally to put a face to the voice. We don't just learn together—we share a deep bond of friendship and discuss everything from Judaism to child rearing," said Robyn of her chavruta, Rivky Chazan.
Living in the lush but spiritually bereft farmlands of Oregon with their eight children, Graydon and Robyn were ideal candidates for the JNet program which aims to service Jews living in remote areas. Graydon’s interest in Judaism was sparked after surviving a 40 foot fall off a construction scaffold without any lasting injuries. His belief, he told Lubavitch.com, that there was a higher power watching over him and protecting him, led him to explore Judaism more fully.
He and his wife studied for several years on their own, before they were referred to JNet. “What JNet has done for us is life changing. It’s hard to put it into words the debt of appreciation that we owe our chavrutas. In only one year we were exposed to a massive wealth of information. We learned Jewish law and were taught how to apply it to our daily lives. JNet put us on the fast track towards Jewish observance.”
Meeting their chavrutas in person solidified an already strong relationship for the Drowns. "I felt like I was meeting a long lost family member,” said Rabbi Naftoli Chariton, of his chavruta Graydon Drown. “We had none of the awkwardness usually present in first meetings.”
For Rivky Chazan, the circle of friendship she shares with her chavruta, Robyn is expanding to her parents, as the Drowns made a stop to visit them in Kansas on their way home to Oregon.
“I’m delighted that my parents finally met my chavruta. I’ve been talking about Robyn all year, and my parents feel as if she’s family.”
Developing a new friendship is a gift that participants in JNet didn’t necessarily count on when they signed up for the program, but for many it’s the impetus that keeps the learning strong.
“We’ve noticed a growing trend of chavrutas flying to attend each others weddings, celebrations, or simply arranging meetings,” says Rabbi Dukes. During the summer, we’ve had people making trips to places that don't necessarily appear in popular summer itineraries.”
“It’s a testament to the deep relationships engendered by the JNet study program,” which, says Rabbi Dukes, he expects will double in number over the next year