The rhythm of Jewish life has always moved to the beat of gatherings, from Shabbat dinners where guests held a seat of honor at the table to synagogue services and life cycle events. Jews gather in groups to learn, and a service can only be held if there’s a minyan.
It’s been nearly a year living the reality of a severely disrupted version of Jewish communal life. Add to that the severely disrupted routines around work, family and school-from-home and the challenge of doing anything that feels like normal intensifies by a factor of many.
Yoni Schlussel, who directs women’s programming at Congregation Beth Jehuda on Milwaukee’s West Side, took a solution-oriented approach to the obstacles posed by the pandemic.
“Because we’re not going to synagogue as much and we’re not getting together, people are very isolated and not seeing each other,” Schlussel said. “We wanted to create a space for people to all be working on something together as a community, but also in small groups, so people would have a chance to talk and process information.”
Schlussel thought about the right fit for more than six months. That turned out to be the LinkUp Women’s Learning program created by Penimi, a non-profit that aims to “motivate each individual to explore and develop his/her intellectual, emotional and spiritual connection to the values that are integral to our identity as Torah Jews.”
The program is currently running in multiple communities, including Boston, Chicago, and Baltimore, with each putting its own spin on how it runs things.
More than 50 women attended a recent kickoff event for Milwaukee program, Schlussel said. About 20 gathered for an in-person socially distanced experience; the rest attended via Zoom. The program was recorded for those who were unable to attend in real time. Local speakers included Rebbetzin Chani Twerski, Chava Israel and Schlussel. Faigie Zelcer, Penimi’s founder and creator of the program, spoke via Zoom from her home in Montreal.
“LinkUp gives us the opportunity to meet to discuss how the Digital Age has affected the way we live, work, act and most importantly, how we think,” Twerski said. “(It) provides the forum to have meaningful dialogue about these subjects.”
The event included remarks from Israel, who taught a high-school version of the LinkUp curriculum at Torah Academy of Milwaukee and Zelcer, who spoke about the reasons she created the program.
“Technology is here, it’s here to stay and it has served us well, certainly, through the pandemic and certainly at many other times. But there’s a whole other component that’s not necessarily about a device or an app,” she said. “It’s about what we’re influenced by and how to have a conversation that is intelligent and nuanced.”
Schlussel said about 60 women have signed up for the program. Groups of between eight and 12 people will be led through the curriculum by a trained facilitator.
The curriculum draws from a combination of contemporary Jewish sources, scientific research, and Torah and Midrash. Through readings and interactive exercises, learners are able to figure out the healthiest balance for themselves and their families.
In a chapter about mindfulness, for example, one discussion point asks participants to “focus on something right now … and ask yourself how focusing on that makes you feel. Does it shift from ‘uncomfortable’ to ‘relaxing’ or the other way around? At what point does this change take place?”
All facilitators belong to the congregation. Sara Hoffman, a social worker and shul member, helped train the facilitators and will provide ongoing support.
At the launch, Schlussel let attendees know that this was designed to enhance their lives, not add more pressure.
“We want to do it every other week, so it’s not every week, and for about an hour,” she said. “You can stay and schmooze after, but you don’t have to.”