In Rabbi David Fohrman, philanthropist LeRoy Hoffberger found a teacher who made the Torah come alive.
"I thought he was a master teacher," Hoffberger said. "He has this technique of being able to excite you and create in you a sense of wonder about what it is the answers are going to be to the questions raised in various portions of Torah."
Hoffberger wanted to find a way to enable Fohrman, and teachers like him, to share their gifts with the wider Jewish community, particularly with Jews not affiliated with a synagogue and with little connection to the religion or culture. And as chairman of the Hoffberger Foundation, he was in a position to do just that.
With an initial contribution of $1.5 million, matched by other sources, the foundation has established the Hoffberger Institute for Torah Study, a nonprofit group created to enhance the knowledge and understanding of Jews, particularly those unaffiliated or marginally affiliated, about their heritage and traditions.
The institute's aim is to take the Torah out of the synagogue and into the marketplace and the living room. "It's less threatening than coming to synagogue on Saturday and hearing the rabbi tell you why it's important for you to be a Jew," Hoffberger said.
The program will go to bookstores and into peoples' homes, offering lectures, small interactive classes and discussion groups focusing on the Torah, which consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible -- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers -- the books that, according to tradition, make up the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
The idea for the Torah institute grew out of classes and informal discussion groups that Fohrman conducted after leaving his post as a pulpit rabbi in Olney because of the long commute.
Fohrman, a graduate of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Pikesville and the Johns Hopkins University's master's of liberal arts program, took a job with Mesorah Publications, popularly known as Artscroll, on the team working on a 15-year, 68-volume translation of the Babylonian Talmud.
He eventually was the primary author of three of the volumes and became the senior editor of the entire project. But something was missing.
"Although I enjoyed doing that, it was sort of a vicarious way of teaching," Fohrman said. "It was me and my computer screen, and I thought I wanted to connect with people in a more direct way."
In late 1996, soon after the Bill Moyers series on Genesis appeared on PBS, Fohrman was asked by the Bibelot bookstore in Pikesville to co-lead -- with Stephen Vicchio, who teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and who supervised Fohrman's master's thesis at Hopkins -- a discussion group on the recently featured biblical book.
More than 100 people signed up for the group. That led to a follow-up at the bookstore, then to discussion groups on the Bible at people's homes and, finally, to a course, "High Noon in the Garden of Good and Evil" in the Odyssey adult education program at Hopkins.
Two students in his Hopkins course were Hoffberger and his wife, Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum.
They were impressed by Fohrman's ability to take what seemed to be simple stories and help his students find the deeper meaning in them.
"He leads you into a discussion that permits you to examine the texts and discover what those meanings are," Mr. Hoffberger said. "It's intellectually challenging and, ultimately, a process that makes you aware that Torah really is a divine document."
Fohrman began leading a biblical discussion group in the Hoffbergers' home. The idea for the institute sprang from that.
"We decided we liked one another so much that we should see if we could do this in a fashion that would make Rabbi Fohrman available to the Jewish community," Hoffberger said.
The decision to target unaffiliated Jews was a matter of "triage," Fohrman said. A decade-old survey found that more than 50 percent of Jews married non-Jews and that few of the children of those marriages were raised with any Jewish identity.
Giving Judaism a chance
"What you've got in the Jewish community is almost a unique moment in our history," Fohrman said. "There are masses and masses of Jews abandoning Judaism altogether.
"What I'm trying to do is for those Jews who never really gave the Bible a second chance, never gave Judaism a second chance, to try and pique their interest and say, 'Maybe this is something we ought to think about before abandoning.'"
The institute has hired five teachers and will offer several programs, including courses at area synagogues and discussion groups in private homes.
Its first offering will be a Fall Lecture and Interactive Workshop Series early next month at Jacob's Ladder Bookstore in Pikesville. The first part, which is limited to 100 participants, will deal with the life of Moses in the biblical texts and will be followed by a forum examining areas of Jewish thought, life and text.
Pub Date: 9/04/99