We all know those dinner parties. The ones where you enter the host’s home, gift them a kugel, leave your authentic self at the door, and then end up politely smiling at arrogant guests. Don’t worry, I’m not about to subject you to such an experience. We’re entering The Torah Studio’s sunny realm.
Based in Los Angeles, The Torah Studio was founded last September by Liana Wertman. There are weekly online classes that run yearly or quarterly, and while Wertman isn’t in the throwing-dinner-parties business, through non-hierarchical pedagogy, hevruta (partnered learning) and group discussion, Torah study will feel like a fun dinner party. Except, nourishment is Torah, fullness comes from dynamic conversation not potato noodles, and dynamic conversation arises because learners are comfortable enough to respectfully voice their opinions.
Torah creates bridges between the biblical and modern world; the studio understands Torah as a core part of Judaism that one can feel personal ownership over. I have been attending Wertman’s online Weekly Torah Portion Study since February 2021, but in listening to Wertman speak of her own Torah study journey, I came to understand why she is the only one who could have formed a community that gives everyone a seat at the virtual round table. The Torah Studio gives learners the same excited energy Wertman experienced along her journey, the ones that emboldened Wertman’s excitement for Torah—a joy that flourished into a desire “to study Torah all the time.”
Wertman credits her father starting his own Torah study journey for her positive relationship with Torah. She explained that when she was a child, “I remember him telling us about the parsha every week at the Shabbat dinner table . . . I was very excited by it and really wanted to know more.” At Gindling Hilltop Camp, in Malibu, she would always be at Torah Time on Fridays. In preparation for Shabbat, campers would make a skit or parody about the week’s parsha; she would go on to run the series as a counsellor.
In 2018, when Wertman worked as a Jewish Teen Educator at a synagogue, she started looking for Torah study classes to join but couldn’t find any that allowed for deep reflection, or ones where she wasn’t the youngest (by around 30 years) in the room. Once she found a class geared toward young adults, but it was only once a month. The class’ infrequency was problematic because if she missed one, she wouldn’t have Torah study for two months. Wertman’s dissatisfaction led her to realize, “I work in a synagogue, if anybody should be able to figure out how to study really deeply it should be me.” So she asked rabbis and educators—anyone who would listen—how to study Torah all the time. They told her she could live in Israel and go to Yeshiva for a short period of time, or go to rabbinical school. Wertman attended Pardes for a year to study Torah and Talmud, but attending didn’t answer her question, “how can I study Torah all the time while being a young adult living my life? Study practice should be able to fit into my life, and it should be accessible. Why can’t it be like going to a yoga studio and paying $5-$15 for a class?” But wait, she thought, it can. And that is exactly what she actualized while beginning her masters in Jewish Educational Leadership at Hebrew University College.
She initially wanted to cater solely to the L.A. community, but the pandemic changed her plans. Now, rather than designing classes for in-person study, her classes are designed for Zoom, and the community stretches to those in different countries and time-zones. Of course she wants to have in-person experiences as well, but Zoom has made it accessible for people to even connect from their cars (this has exclusively happened to learners stuck in L.A. traffic).
At the end of a class, everyone changes their Zoom name to something that impacted them, and then they smile for the screenshot. Fortunately, no one here is stuck in L.A. traffic. Photo by Liana Wertman.
Similar to Pardes, at The Torah Studio you are learning for learning’s sake. The studio is your space for safe exploration, just as Wertman’s Shabbat dinners and summers at camp were for her. Your opinion or presence is not valued by what outside knowledge you have or support your claim with. Perspectives can align or differ with another’s, they can critique or praise the text, they can be blatantly unsure.
Kelsey Grashoff was new to Torah last year when she decided to take a class at The Torah Studio. As someone who used to be “intimidated by text study in more traditional spaces” the approachable structure of the class gave her “the confidence to know that I belong in a Torah study space. I feel comfortable sharing my thoughts and feelings in each class, and know it is a truly respectful space where people of all backgrounds are welcome.” There have been moments that have “reframed my understanding of the stories, and I’ve even mentioned what I’ve learned in Torah Studio classes when speaking with my rabbis.”
To learn at The Torah Studio, means you have the opportunity to be realistic and acknowledge that “it [Torah] has to be perfectly true in a way that it can then be interpreted and interpreted to make the laws that make sense to us now.” Wertman does not shirk analysis of the text or its context by looking “beyond what they say . . . what do they mean to me in my modern day?” Doing so, she makes Torah relevant and open to different modes of interpretation. As Torah Studio educator, Rebecca Chess elaborated:
“The Torah Studio stands on a foundation of radical inclusivity; it gives me the precious opportunity to help people develop the skills to not just know a text but to own it. To be able to build knowledge to confidently stand strong and take up space in our multitude of identities in a community that unfortunately often tells us we do not belong. Torah Studio proves to me class after class, semester after semester, the power of bringing our full selves and whatever self we are that day to our texts.”
Classes begin with an introduction, “a basis of what we’re talking about” with the intent that when you are placed into your learning style of choice—big picture, one verse at a time, word for word—you’ll be paired with a hevruta who chose the same learning style. Hevruta learning allows for the time to read the prescribed passage (sent before class begins) in its entirety from either or both the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) Tanakh or Koren Jerusalem translations. Wertman teaches in English with Hebrew as an option. “Something,” she states, she gets “pushback in certain spaces from because there’s a belief that if you’re reading in English you’re not doing the deep work of Torah study, which I think only happens if you act like every translation is perfect.”
Hannah Bender, an educator and learner at The Torah Studio, appreciates the “joy that comes from reading our texts together.” A stand-out moment was when they attended Chess’s class on The Book of Esther, and remarked to their hevruta the campiness of the tale. “Having thought partners bring the text to life, and continues to remind me of the beauty of Torah and how we are truly a part of this long line of Jewish peoples struggling with our texts.”
After hevruta comes the break. Wertman plays music that makes you imagine what a Deuteronomy soundtrack would sound like (there’d be a lot of Batya Levine), while you wonder what you want to type or draw on the (Zoom) whiteboard. As you enter the group discussion portion, know that what struck you in hevruta may not come up in discussion. But it doesn’t mean your time in hevruta “was purposeless, it was just part of the things in the air today.”
A heartily-filled fruit basket and many thoughtful words grace Dvarim 26:1-11’s joyful whiteboard (from a Weekly Torah Study). Art and word by hevrutas. Photo by Liana Wertman.
However, the conversations do not move in a willy-nilly-sort-of-way. There are discussion questions in the Hevruta Packet sent out before classes. Wertman was initially hesitant to do this. When The Torah Studio first started, she was committed to having no discussion questions ready, nothing that could guide anyone. “I was like, ‘you figure it out, you’ll have fun, I’ll follow your lead,’ and I still do that with ‘what is your hot-take’ but there are questions I’m pushing people towards.” Yet, if the class doesn’t get to the discussion questions it’s because the focus was on a different area.
Recently, Wertman has started ending class by imparting her own opinion on the text. Like with the discussion questions, she was hesitant:
“I don’t need my voice to be the thing people are leaving with, but I want people to know there are big ideas you can take from this text . . . I like to imagine, maybe it only works because it’s new, where I’m like, I’m not a rabbi, I’ve only studied for a few years, I don’t speak Hebrew perfectly, and I have these hot-takes that your listening to, and [to also show] you can do it too!”
In fact, Wertman’s greatest dream is that one day there will be a class led by someone who started learning Torah at The Torah Studio; learned from a still-in-Wertman’s-dream’s teaching training program, and is now instructing a class. “How exciting would that be for a new learner to know that the person teaching them was exactly where they were, and without going to Yeshiva, without leaving their jobs, without becoming a rabbi, they can have this Torah voice that matters to people.”
Meanwhile, she provides a valuable space for her current educators to expand the boundaries of Jewish learning and experience. Chess is able to educate different people and identities; they get to explore “topics that I wouldn’t normally get to for other adult Jewish education classes. I think a lot about finding queerness, transness, humour in our texts—the parts of ourselves (myself) we far too often feel we have to leave at the door.” During their class on The Book of Ruth last spring, many learners explored Ruth and Naomi’s relationship with queer potential, or as familial. It was one of the most heated discussions Chess led. Though, “we were all clearly able to hold each other’s identities and experiences that we brought to the text, while also allowing us to explore our own thoughts, sometimes contradictory ones.” The invigorating conversation reminded Chess that there is “room for us all, including those who see themselves on the outside in Torah study, in Judaism.”
Another end-of-class-snap, this time it comes from Chess’ The Book of Esther class. Photo by Liana Wertman.
In discussion, Wertman is constantly surprised by people’s willingness to change their minds. Not strictly in the sense their opinion becomes aligned with someone else’s, but to be able to see different interpretations of the text at once. “I’ve seen people come into class from hevruta fired-up . . . and without saying anything, or saying some things, leave with lightness.” It surprised Wertman because so many people refuse to see or open themselves up to views beyond their own and take in the different layers of meaning a single word in a parsha can hold. If you are angry, okay, but find room to let another take co-exist. They’re hot-takes, not the only-take.
And Wertman feels extremely lucky she gets to witness that growth happening in real-time and so quickly, with what usually comes from many years of study.
In the meantime, Alex Yalen is surprised he is even a learner. As someone who grew-up in a religiously hostile home, “to be circling back now, to want to develop a Jewish practice . . . it’s funny to me.” When he first started attending classes, Yalen didn’t know what he could contribute, but it turns out, “I have a lot to say about Torah because there is a lot in Torah to talk about . . . I always leave energized—like, ‘that was inclusive and deep, and if this is my heritage, this is awesome.” The Torah Studio didn’t only reveal to Yalen his love for studying Torah, it has given him the “first Jewish community that I’ve ever really had.”
Torah, “the thing,” as Deuteronomy 30:14 tells us, “is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart,” and it is there for you to “observe it.” The Torah Studio gives you the comfort to observe it as you will. Perhaps I was wrong in the beginning, it isn’t exactly like a dinner party. When the class ends the party doesn’t. From all the hevrutas and educators we have encountered in this article, it is clear that once you leave, your spirit is still left abuzz with curiosity for Torah and for how you and it fit in relation to each other and the world. Their experiences, and mine, prove that Wertman is succeeding in her quest to help people form the strongest possible relationship to Torah—a complicated one.
Header image design by Orly Zebak.