The World Health Organization declared COVID a pandemic on March 11, 2020, 1,015 days ago from this article’s Dec. 21 publication.
For more than 1,000 of those days, a Zoom beit midrash has met virtually, gathering to discuss Torah, prayer and Jewish philosophy and culture. The group has hosted Rabbi Irving Greenberg, author of “The Jewish Way,” and Rising Song Institute’s Joey Weisenberg, among other lecturers.
On Dec. 16, the group, led by West Chester synagogue Kesher Israel Congregation member Rabbi Dr. Maury Hoberman, celebrated its kiloversary and 1,000th meeting.
“It’s really special because their participation is special,” Hoberman said of the group. “People come at this from different aspects of how they relate the Torah portion to their personal lives and how they relate the history or the music to their personal lives, which makes it fascinating. It’s really a very diverse group.”
Beyond philosophical conversations, the non-denominational group made up of mostly 50- to 70-year-olds has music Thursdays, where one participant selects a genre or song to play for the group. Each daily meeting, including abbreviated Saturday Shabbat services, ends with a misheberach, prayer for healing, and a five-minute meditation.
In addition to a regular 10-25 person daily attendance, Hoberman provides recordings of the daily meetings to about 20 members who can’t attend the 9:30 a.m. sessions. While many attendees hail from West Chester and Kesher Israel, others are snowbirds in Florida or are from as far away as California and learned about the group via word of mouth.
“[Hoberman] is really engaging. His mission is to really teach people, and he’s very good at it,” said Neshamah Diana Faraone, a beit midrash member outside of San Francisco. “It didn’t matter to me that it was early in the morning.”
Before becoming a rabbi, Hoberman was a surgeon. After retirement, Hoberman, now an octogenarian, pursued his ordination and received his semikhah from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal in 2019. After meeting Faraone at an ALEPH-led Jewish heritage trip to Italy in 2016 and emailing back-and-forth for several years, Hoberman invited Faraone to the beit midrash.
Hoberman hosted the first beit midrash on March 22, 2020, according to Stew Feinberg, the group’s de facto historian and record keeper, who attended that meeting.
The group was designed to be a way for Hoberman to foster Jewish community in a time of isolation and disorientation. After advertising the group in a post on the Kesher Israel Facebook page, Hoberman was joined by a couple dozen interested parties. In July, Hoberman had planned to reassess whether the group was still necessary, but people kept showing up.
“That was about 950 beit midrashes ago,” Feinberg said.
Many members touted Hoberman’s teaching style, which invites participants to join in to conversations after Hoberman introduces various topics. Faraone remembers a particularly engaging conversation about whether animals have souls — a topic that emerged after several members had pets who died.
“People really feel included and cared for,” she said.
Beyond the discussions and lectures, the beit midrash has become a social system and support group for some members. West Chester residents attend Kesher Israel services together on Saturday or hang out in each others’ homes. For member Shellie Herdan, who joined the beit midrash a couple of months after it began, the group was a source of comfort after her husband’s death.
“I needed to do kaddish, so I did it with them — for 30 days with them, every day,” she said. “And then I stayed.”
Influenced by his late-in-life journey to becoming a rabbi, Hoberman believes that Jewish adults should have more educational opportunities.
“There’s a great hunger for Jewish education in adults,” Hoberman said. “We often get the comment, ‘How come they never taught us that before?!’”
For the group’s members, technology, rather than being counter to the spirit of the ancient Jewish tradition, has been a helpful tool.
“One of the advantages and the reason people show up is because it’s so convenient,” Hoberman said. “The future of Judaism has to do with it using the technology that’s available.”
Member Jo Anne Deglin, a snowbird and Bala Cynwyd resident, believes that technology has made Judaism more accessible to Jews across generations, though she acknowledges that there’s been a shift in what Judaism looks like.
“It’s not the Judaism I think my mother grew up with,” she said.
As technology opens up more opportunities for connection, conversation and information for the beit midrash, Deglin believes Jews should embrace what the future holds: “All we have to do is open the window to let it in a little bit, and then we’ll see what’s there.”