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Bible & Bagels: Once Around the Torah in 24 Years

Posted January 5, 2017

<b>Bible & Bagels: Once Around the Torah in 24 Years</b>

By Nadine Brozan

One of the more familiar passages of the Mishnah enumerates good deeds that cannot be done too often, among them honoring parents, engaging in deeds of loving kindness, visiting the sick, making peace among people. And it concludes, “the study of Torah encompasses them all.”

If so, then a milestone reached this past December 14 by the 26 congregants enrolled in Bible and Bagels – completion of the reading of the entire Torah – marks a singular accomplishment and the most meaningful connection to our faith.

Starting on September 26, 1992, and ending on December 14, 2016, it took 24 years of meeting at 8:15am every Wednesday morning (no breaks for vacation, few holidays), to complete this gargantuan undertaking: reading every single word, every sentence of the Torah, discussing, debating, and digesting much of it.

“The first class was the breath of God and the last class is the breath of God,” Rabbi Emeritus Peter J. Rubinstein told the assemblage at a siyyum – a celebration – of the completion of the Torah when the last words of Deuteronomy and the first words of the Book of Joshua were read.

“What we are taking away from this class is the breath of God, our lives enlarged by study,” he said. “We are conveying the soul of God and showing it to the world.”

Over the years, we learned, if we did not already know it, that there is no human experience, emotion, endeavor, impulse, tragedy, triumph, no relationship between individuals or nations that cannot be found in the Torah.

It was Rabbi Rubinstein who brought the idea for the class to Central Synagogue and was its first teacher shortly after his arrival here from California. In what turned out to be an understatement, he predicted that “This course could take several years.” In the ensuing decades it was taught by almost every member of the clergy including Sarah Reines, Ruth Zlotnick, Josh Davidson, Michael Friedman, and Andy Straus.

“This class was always about the journey, the great unfurling of the story,” said Rabbi Friedman, who came from his current pulpit in Westport, CT, to join in the celebration. “You taught me the beauty of digression,” he said, referring to the tendency of the class to wander off on tangents.

Looking back on the two years in which he has taught the class, Rabbi David Kalb, its current teacher who is a Modern Orthodox rabbi, said, “When I started I didn’t know what to expect. We found our way together. I’m extremely excited that I am the one bringing it to an end and beginning Joshua.”

But none of the teachers have roots in the class that run as deeply as those of Rabbi Janet Roberts. She was a student in the group for several years and then became its teacher, which led her to pursue a career in the rabbinate. “This is where I got my start,” she said.

Though its goal has been achieved, the group has no intention of disbanding and has already begun its study of Joshua. Indeed, the class never goes on hiatus. During the summer months when there is no rabbi available to teach, it studies auxiliary writing, Psalms, and Prophets among them on its own with students serving as teachers.

As Joe Sofer, who organizes what is known as Torah Summer Camp, put it, “We do this because we are a community. Everyone takes responsibility and we are all mini-scholars.”

Nadine Brozan joined Central Synagogue with her late husband Ralph Brozan in 1978 and is an original member of the Bible & Bagels group. She was a reporter and editor at the New York Times for more than 40 years.