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Torathon: A celebratory evening of Jewish learning, culture and ideas

By Laura Porter

WORCESTER – With topics ranging from Jon Stewart to tzizit, the meaning of the Sh’ma to Biblical monsters, Torathon will once more turn adult Jewish learning into a celebratory evening of culture and ideas.

On Nov. 14, students of many ages will fill the hallways and classrooms of Congregation Beth Israel for an evening that “is now accepted as the keystone event of the Jewish community of Central Massachusetts,” says Bernie Rotman, one of the founders of Torathon and a member of the Torathon Committee.

Registration begins at 5:15 p.m. and classes will be held in three fifty-minute sessions from 7:10 to 10 p.m.

But the evening will truly begin at 5:50 p.m. with Havdalah and a pre-program: a tribute to the late Debbie Friedman by area musicians and cantors.

After choosing music as the focus for this year’s event, the organizers were in the process of making arrangements to bring in a noted Israeli singer “when someone noted that it was the fifth yahrzeit of Debbie Friedman’s death,” says Rotman.

“Someone else said, ‘Why can’t we do our own concert? We have such talent here,’” he recalls.

Chaired by Torathon Committee member and musician Ellen Allard, the music component will include area cantors, rabbis and musicians, including Rachel Reef-Simpson, Jeri Robins, Sharon Brown Goldstein, Rachel Gurevitz, Jeff Klepper, E. J. Cohen, Sue Horowitz, Lisa Marcus Jones, Suri Krieger and Allard herself.

“It will be phenomenal,” says Rotman, “and it is also likely to have wide appeal.”

The musicians will also conclude the night by leading a songfest.

Torathon began in 1988, the joint brainchild of Rotman and Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, who was then serving at Beth Israel. Interested in bringing serious adult Jewish education to Central Massachusetts, the two men based the new program on a model begun in Port Jefferson Station, Long Island.

“It was a great success from the start,” Rotman says. “It’s the only event where we have all the denominations together, all under one roof teaching. Someone who might never be exposed to a rabbi or cantor from another synagogue was able to [study with him or her].”

He himself stepped away from the program in the mid-1990s. It continued for a couple of years, then went on hiatus until 2008, when “we brought it back,” he says.

At that point, Rabbi and Jewish educator Joyce Siegel became a professional staff member for the event, hired by Federation as the Torathon coordinator. She was then program director at the Westborough JCC as well as the director of the Tapestry of Life Adult Educational and Cultural Community Programs, which she had initiated at Federation.

Interested in bringing adult education to the community, she spoke with Federation executive director Howard Borer, who connected her with Bernie Rotman, and “it grew from there,” she says.

Though they did not know what to expect the first year of the event’s return, they created a committee drawn from area synagogues and the JCCs and asked committee members to recruit presenters.

“It just took on a life of its own,” she says.

The organizers had planned for 200 to attend, but “we were totally blown away when we ran out of all our materials,” she recalls. “The lines started before Shabbos was over. People couldn’t wait to get in and see what we were offering.”

Since then, it has only grown, expanding from strictly a local presence to people from the Boston area as well as throughout New England.

Sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts, Torathon is also jointly funded by the Siegel Family Cultural Fund in memory of Bernice and Albert Chaiken and Arthur Siegel as well as the Rotman Family Foundation in memory of Murray Rotman.

The teaching staff includes area clergy, academics, members of the creative arts, and “local folks who may have an interest in and real ability to delve into a particular topic,” Bernie Rotman says.

All volunteer their time.

During the third and last hour of the evening, the songfest will be open to everyone, followed by a dessert reception.

“It’s about community: people who would not normally study together coming together,” says Joyce Siegel. “They can learn from whomever they want; there are no barriers.”

Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. High school and college students are $5 in advance and $10 at the door. Ticket sales are online www.Jewishcentralmass.org/torathon.

For more information, contact Joyce Siegel at 508-756-1543 or torathoncentralma@gmail.com.

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