Study form ancient, but lessons modern


Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger cracks the door to the study hall at Ner Israel Rabbinical College and beams as a torrent of conversation that sounds like a Middle Eastern marketplace pours out.

Inside, hundreds of students dressed in white shirts, black trousers and yarmulkes are boisterously debating Talmudic texts in English peppered with Hebrew and Aramaic.

Facing off across tables piled high with books, "the boys," as Neuberger calls his students, analyze and cajole, scribble notes and wag their fingers, each trying to convince the other of the merits of his argument.

"You hear the noise?" says Neuberger, grinning through a thick gray beard. "It doesn't bother anybody. It's actually invigorating."

Silence may be the rule in most study halls, but at Ner Israel it is the exception. Every day - except the Sabbath - students at the Orthodox college in Pikesville spend hours analyzing the Talmud using an ancient system of learning in pairs known as the chavrusa (pronounced Hav-roo-SAH).

Working with partners - and occasionally with faculty help - they use the 3,000-year-old study method to sift through Judaism's complex legal and philosophical traditions. And, though the scene evokes images from centuries past, the chavrusa is no relic.

Since the early 1980s, Ner Israel and other traditional Orthodox colleges across the country have seen enrollments double. The result is an engaging style of study that is as alive today as it was 1,800 years ago in the study houses of Egypt, Babylonia and ancient Israel.

Ner Israel's study hall is so filled with intellectual energy that even the handful of students who read by themselves can't sit still. Poring over texts so well-used that the spines are reinforced with electrical tape, they tap their feet on the linoleum floor and bob their heads in nervous concentration.

Students say they like the chavrusa - derived from the Hebrew word chaver, or friend - because it allows them to bounce ideas off one another and develop critical thinking skills through collaboration.

One morning last week graduate students Dovi Kreismann and Chaim Barry were discussing stolen property under Jewish law. The question: If a thief steals an item that fluctuates in value, how much should he pay in restitution?

It sounds esoteric, but in the Orthodox community, this is exactly the kind of dispute a rabbi might have to resolve. The challenge is not just to find an answer, said Professor Tzvi Krakauer, but to grasp the underlying logic of different opinions in the text and apply it to contemporary life.

"We're trying to peel back the curtain and see where they are coming from," said Barry, an amiable 26-year-old from Harrisburg, Pa., who occasionally punctuates his points by slapping his hands on the open pages of the Talmud. "When you study the Talmud, it's never black and white."

Kriesmann, 25, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native with a master's degree in business administration from the Johns Hopkins University, revels in the chavrusa because it allows him - with the help of partners such as Barry - to build an intellectual mosaic from a single idea. "I absolutely love my day," said Kreismann, who is pondering whether to pursue a career as a rabbi or a corporate lawyer.

Students at Ner Israel begin the morning with one partner and study with another in the afternoon. In the evening, college students team up with high school students to mentor them and hone their teaching skills. Professors provide lectures, guide many discussions and answer questions.

William Helmreich attended Ner Israel as a high school student in the early 1960s and later wrote The World of the Yeshiva, a book based in part on his experiences there. The secret of a good chavrusa, he says, is a friendly partner who pushes you intellectually and helps unravel the Talmud's mysteries.

"When you figure out what this person who was writing 2,000 years ago really meant, nothing can equal it," said Helmreich, a professor of sociology at City University of New York Graduate Center. "When the chavrusa helps you reach that level, you're both on a high."

Because mastering the Talmud is a lifelong task, many continue chavrusa long after graduation. In a 1970s survey Helmreich found that about 90 percent of former Ner Israel students still studied the Talmud in some form.

Shlomo Goldstein graduated from Ner Israel in 1961 and worked for more than two decades as an administrator with the Maryland Department of Education. After retirement, he returned to campus, where a mutual friend set him up with Rabbi Yosef Berger.

For the past seven years, the two men have met in the study hall three hours a day, six days a week. Explaining what each brings to the chavrusa, they sound like the academic equivalent of a happily married couple.

"We complement each other," says Goldstein, 67.

"You're creative, I'm practical," adds Berger, 37.

Neuberger, who serves as vice president of Ner Israel, says intensive Talmudic study requires an environment with few outside distractions - no mean feat in a society filled with temptation. Officially, the all-male school bans TVs in dorm rooms and Internet use on campus. Secular music is prohibited too. The various restrictions appear to be fairly effective.

"We don't really have social contacts with girls, so that cuts off temptations," says Abraham Cohen, 19, from Brooklyn.

"No one is forced to be here," adds Mendy Markovitz, 18, of Pikesville, noting that students come to Ner Israel knowing the rules.

It is impossible, though, to seal off the campus from the realities of American life, says Neuberger. Students taking classes at other universities must do online research and use e-mail to participate in group projects.

"Whatever problems there are out there in the world, we have to deal with too," he says.

Ner Israel was founded in Baltimore in 1933 by Rabbi Jacob I. Ruderman and a handful of students. Today, it sits on a hilly 90-acre tract off Reisterstown Road, a collection of low-slung brick buildings that includes modest town houses for faculty. Most students and teachers live on campus.

Of more than 80 Orthodox postsecondary schools in the United States, which have a total enrollment of 10,000 to 12,000, Ner Israel is regarded as one of the elite. It draws students from 15 nations.

The college offers bachelor's and master's degrees as well as doctorates, in Talmudic law. Accredited with the Maryland State Department of Education, Ner Israel also permits study at secular schools, including Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland. Tuition, room and board runs nearly $14,000 a year; most students get scholarships.

In the past two decades, enrollment has doubled to about 850. Much of the growth is related to Baltimore's popularity with the national Orthodox community as well as to the size of Orthodox families, which average about four children and follow the Biblical commandment "Be fruitful and multiply."

CUNY's Helmreich says the growth at Ner Israel and other schools has had at least one negative effect: They attract some students who simply aren't capable of becoming Talmudic scholars. Otherwise, he calls Ner Israel an effective institution. "I would probably give it an A-plus," he says.

About half of Ner Israel's students become rabbis and teachers; others go into business, law, medicine and other professions. Neuberger says he's not bothered by students who pursue secular careers as long as they develop a deep understanding of Talmudic-based Judaism.

"Our tradition and our religion are very much dependent on people being knowledgeable," says Neuberger. "One of the commandments in the Bible is that one should master the Torah. The Jews are called the People of the Book for a reason."

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