Some members didn’t know an alef from a bet or which way to open a Jewish prayer book when they formed a Torah study group 50 years ago.
Now, after a thousand study sessions, members have deepened their knowledge of Jewish sacred texts and increased their level of religious observance. Since 1972, they’ve forged lifelong friendships that feel like family.
“It’s been quite a journey,” said Joyce Stern, 83, who joined the D.C.-area group of Conservative Jews with her husband, Michael, in the mid-1970s. “For all of us, Judaism defines our lives. The truths in these texts are so profound, so deep, that you can extract meaning for the modern day right up until 2022.”
The study group, as it is called, never came up with anything more elegant or descriptive for a name. They meet in each other’s homes every other Sunday night, 10 months out of the year. None would consider missing a session.
Today the lay group of 23 people includes nine founders. They rotate their members who lead in-depth discussion of assigned texts. They take their time, exhaustively covering the Book of Genesis in three years and wrestling with the esoteric complexities of Jewish mysticism.
“We don’t rush our studies because we go into the material carefully,” said Jane Fidler, 77, of Potomac, who is a Montgomery College English professor. “We’re not rabbis. We don’t have that depth and breadth. But we care and we want to know. So, it’s not unusual for us to spend two or three years on a particular subject.”
Arnie Hammer, 79, is a founding member with his wife, Mary. “Leading the study session,” this retired lawyer said, “is a daunting process because you don’t want to let down your chavurah (group). You want to make sure you do a good job. You want to ask the right questions and lead a good discussion.”
Discussion leaders have been known to begin their study two to three weeks in advance and put in at least two hours a night, Fidler said.
Stern documented 30 topics the group has studied in the last half century — from Yiddish literature and the Rambam to kashrut and psalms. The group consults ancient and modern commentators on passages of Torah. They are currently studying Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, for the second time.
To celebrate their 50th anniversary, the group will have a prayer service on May 6 at Adas Israel Congregation, where the original members belonged. The next day at services, the group will be honored with an aliyah, and eight members will read from the Torah. One will chant the haftarah.
It will be the first time the group has met in person since the beginning of the pandemic. COVID-19 never interrupted their studies.
In New York, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, vice chancellor for religious life and engagement at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, knows about the Jewish study group. Their origins make sense to him.
“The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time in which there was a surge in Jewish ethnic identification and a reclaiming and reinterpretation of Jewish traditions by a young generation of American Jews,” Tucker said. “It was totally in keeping with the spirit of the times for study groups such as this one to have formed themselves and to have endured.”
Rabbi Richard Yellin, then the associate rabbi at Adas Israel, started more than one study group of young couples in the 1970s, but this one has stood the test of time, Stern said. “Rabbi Yellin taught us how to organize ourselves as people who would study Torah.”
Joyce Stern said she considers herself a student, while her husband, Michael, who died 20 months ago at age 82, was a scholar. Among the languages he mastered were Hebrew, Ladino, Yiddish and Aramaic. He was able to research in the original language when designing curriculum.
The first meeting of the study group took place in Dr. Stuart and Jane Fidler’s Potomac home in October 1972.
“Most of the people in the study group were newly married. We had no children and I had no furniture in my house,” said Fidler, whose husband died in 2005. She has since remarried.
“The only thing that we had in common was that we were essentially the same age and we wanted to grow and increase our knowledge about our religion.”
After a year, Rabbi Yellin left the group and it became self-led. The members would have coffee and schmooze, then study for an hour and a half to two hours.
“We’ve had a pretty extensive list of subjects that we’ve studied in 50 years,” Fidler said. “Some of the subjects we’ve repeated because what we learned when we were 25 is quite different than how we perceive the study as older adults.”
A good example is the study of the Hebrew patriarchs. “As young students, we took this study very literally. Our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were heroes for us and we held on to their every word and they could do no wrong,” Fidler said. “But at this stage, we see significant flaws. We see problems they had. We see mistakes that they made. We love our forefathers, but we see them now with greater empathy than we did when we were younger.”
Many study group members have been heavily involved in outside Jewish activities. Among them is Stern, who is active in Adas Israel’s Sisterhood. Mary Hammer serves on the synagogue’s Hesed Committee. George Johnson is an editor at Moment Magazine. Michael Goldman is the Jewish chaplain at the Georgetown University law and medical centers. Donna Goldman taught at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (JDS) and her husband, Marty Goldman, was a program director at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Barbara Gelman is a Jewish-themed sculptor.
The couples have celebrated the simchahs in their lives and mourned each other’s losses.
“Many of us didn’t have family here so we became each other’s extended family,” Fidler said. “It’s been wonderful.”
All of their children attended Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and many became observant. “The children of all our members are defined by their parent’s commitment to Judaism and involvement in the study group,” said Stern, who was a federal government worker along with her husband before retiring. Joyce Stern’s 60-year-old daughter is studying to be a rabbi at Hebrew College in Massachusetts.
Arnie Hammer of Chevy Chase believes the group has lasted so long because of the friendships built, the intellectual stimulation and mutual respect for one another.
“We started out at the same stage of life and developed our Jewish knowledge together through all these years,” said Hammer, whose life became more and more regulated by the Jewish calendar.
When studying Shabbat, Hammer came to grips with what role Shabbat would play in his life, both the rabbinic approach and the modern philosophy of scholars like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
“It allowed us to talk through and work through the level of observance and the kind of observance that we thought would be appropriate for us,” he said. “And it really did that.”