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236 Kane Street / Brooklyn, NY 11231 / 718 875-1550

Open Beit Midrash 5781/2020-21

Tuesday Evenings, December 8, 2020 to June 8, 2021

Click Here to Register Now!

Beit Midrash is a term given to the House of Text Study in the traditional Jewish community. Its atmosphere is fundamentally different from the secular educational schools with which we are generally more familiar. In universities, for example, classes are quiet and ordered, and in libraries the most focused study occurs in separate, private carrels. The Beit Midrash atmosphere, in contrast, is energetic, even boisterous. Students often sit around tables, and the physical proximity encourages them to listen, share, argue and imagine together.

What explains the passion and intensity of the Beit Midrash?

Jewish text study comes primarily not from intellectual interest, but from a love affair. From Sinai, 3300 years ago, Jews have been drawn to the study of the Torah and other sacred writings because these addressed their most important questions about life. Just as we learn about ourselves in our intimate, loving personal relationships, so study of texts helps us to discover who we want to become. As in all relationships of love, the connection to the texts is marked by reflection, unpredictability, struggle and joy.

By exploring Jewish literature of all ages, Open Beit Midrash illuminates key moral and spiritual challenges which we face today. This year, we will study questions as old as violence in the name of religion and as new as depictions of Jews on HBO and the Jewish identity of people raised in more than one religion. Along the way, students will encounter classical Biblical, Rabbinic and early Christian texts, as well as ancient Greek and Roman works, contemporary feminist Midrash and popular Israeli TV series.

Open Beit Midrash is for learners of all levels. We value diversity. Come whether you have studied Jewish texts for twenty years or are a complete novice. All texts are studied in English translation. Open Beit Midrash is held almost every Tuesday evening, 7:30-9:00pm, from December 8, 2020 to June 8, 2021. We will hold the sessions either in person or virtually, depending on the public health situation, and registrants will be advised as we get closer to the course dates.

While the program is drop-in and you may attend as much or as little as you like, please consider the full 24-week program, in order to appreciate the journey and growth of Jewish wisdom from Sinai to the 21st Century. As detailed below, we offer a subscription option which enables you to attend all of the sessions for the year.

Cost: $30 per three-week course, or as many courses as you like for 24 evenings, $180 per person.

Scholarships are available; contact Rabbi Samuel H. Weintraub for more information.

Click here to register for Open Beit Midrash online, or call the office at (718) 875-1550

For more general information, if you’d like to volunteer in one of the Beit Midrash committees, or would like to suggest a course, contact Joy Fallek at [email protected].


Our Greek Heritage

with Dr. Raymond Scheindlin
December 8, 15, and 22, 2020

Chanukah is the holiday that is officially devoted to celebrating the freedom of Judea from the tyrannical rule of Antiochus IV of Syria and his policy of Hellenization. But we might also use it to celebrate the fruitful interaction between Hellenic and Jewish culture that began around the same time (second century BC), lasted for several centuries, and to which the Antiochene persecutions were only an episode. This interaction created a whole branch of Jewish literature to which Jews have traditionally been indifferent, but which has particular fascination for Jews like us, who are similarly immersed in a non-Jewish culture that has fructified our own.

This year we will study three works: Josephus’ The Jewish War, an account by a Greek-writing Jew of the war between Judea and Rome (66-70 CE) that ended with the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of Masada; The Alexander Romance, a Hebrew rewriting of a Greek popular account of Alexander the Great; and The Book of Tobit, a Jewish religious tale preserved in Greek, though probably originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic.

Who (or what) is Israel?

with Dr. Rabbi Barat Ellman
January 5, 12, and 19, 2021

The identity of Israel is a matter of greater debate than might be evident. Who does the term refer to? What does the designation mean? Who decides? As heirs to the biblical tradition, we continue to confront these questions. But they are hardly new. Who or what is Israel has be contested almost from the moment the name first appears in the Bible. Which tribes belong to Israel and which do not? Is “Israel” a people, a kingdom, or the shared experience of exile? Is it to belong to the Covenant, whether the old one or, as the Christian verus Israel (true Israel) movement claimed, the new one? Nor has the modern era put the question to rest as communities as diverse as Caribbean Rastafarians, diasporic Jews, and the State of Israel, claim to be the authentic manifestation of this central identifying appellation.

Over three sessions, “Who (or what) is Israel?” will look at the history of vying claims to be “Israel” and try to unpack the religious, political, and cultural significance of this contest, in its biblical and immediate-post-biblical form, and today.

Mitzvot at Distance: From Flags to Megaphones to Telephones to Webcams

with Rabbi Jeffrey S. Fox
January 26, and February 2 and 9, 2021

The Talmud teaches us that, “Even an iron curtain does not stand between the Jewish People and our Creator” as a way to express that we can connect to the power of prayer even from a distance. What happens when that distance goes from ten feet outside the window of the Synagogue to 1,000s of miles away over the phone? What if you can see—and be seen—on a webcam? We will analyze these questions from the period of the Mishna until the 21st century and will touch on questions related to the shofar, prayer and Kiddush. We will enter into the complicated and intriguing spiritual relationships of the individual and the community: When can others fulfill my obligation and when must I be the agent? What are the implications for virtual fulfillment of sacred obligations?

Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity — Reading Foundational Texts Side-by-Side

with Dr. David Kraemer
February 16 and 23, and March 2, 2021

Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity were born in the same setting—the Land of Israel (Roman Palestine) in the first century of the common era. Beginning with the same inherited tradition and responding to the same factors, these new formulations share many common assumptions and expressions. Understanding the early stages of each, when their “DNA” was put in place, will enable us better to understand all subsequent unfoldings of Judaism and Christianity as well.

Religious Experience in Modern Jewish Literature and Film

with Dr. Beverly Bailis
April 6, 13 and 20, 2021

This course will examine expressions of spiritual experience and the sacred in literary works by writers such as Rebbi Nachman of Breslov, Micha Joseph Berdichevsky, S. Y. Agnon and the Israeli poet Zelda. We will also think about how the representation of spiritual experience in these literary works may serve as a bridge to understanding current religiously themed TV series, such as Shtisel and Unorthodox. We will explore these narratives in light of William James’ The Variety of Religious Experience, Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, and Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, to ask what is “spiritual experience” and how can we characterize the experience of the holy? How does it become manifest in “secular” literary texts, and what function does it serve? What does the proliferation of religiously themed popular culture works say about our current historical and cultural moment, and how do these narratives engage traditional works of the past? The course will likewise explore themes such as spiritual struggle between faith and apostasy, how the sacred can be mobilized for the building of ethical communities and how spiritual aspects of secular narratives can provide a space for coming together in difficult moments of crisis such as our own.

The Akedah / Binding of Isaac, in Jewish Life and Thought

with Dr. Aaron Koller
April 27 and May 4 and 11, 2021

In this series, we will study the story of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, within the Hebrew Bible and in later Jewish texts. After a close reading of the very short narrative (19 verses!) itself, we will focus on three different aspects of the ways Jews have responded to the story. First, we will look at Isaac as a model for martyrs throughout the ages, in the Talmud, the medieval Crusades, and modern Israel. Then, we will look at how Jews assessed the characters, looking at texts that are critical of Abraham as well as those that laud him, and texts that ask about the missing figure of Sarah. Finally, we will tackle the philosophical problem that has loomed large in modern times: should we really kill another if we think that’s what God wants? This problem of religious violence is timely and of great consequence, and we will explore ways of reading the text that lead to different conclusions.

Art as Midrash: Biblical Women of Color

with Cantor Sarah Myerson
May 25, and June 1 and 8, 2021

How are biblical women of color depicted in rabbinic midrash and in visual art? We’ll look at media including paintings, drawings, linocuts, sculptures, photography, and digital art; from medieval times through to contemporary creations. We’ll discuss the ways in which each artist creates a visual midrash on the biblical text, and look for resonance between the artworks and rabbinic midrashim. In week one, we’ll focus on Hagar the Egyptian; maidservant to Sarah Imenu, concubine of Avraham Avinu, mother of the Ishmaelites, who called God “El Roi” (The God who sees me). In week two, we’ll turn to Tsipporah, daughter of a Midianite priest, wife of Moshe Rabbeinu, who circumcised her own son Gershom. In week three, we’ll encounter the Queen of Sheba, also known as Makeda and Bilqis, ally and lover of King Solomon, possible ancestor of the Beta Israel Ethiopian Jewish community.


Dr. Beverly Bailis currently teaches courses in Hebrew language and literature at Brooklyn College. She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary and her M.A. in Jewish Civilization from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She specializes in Modern Hebrew, Jewish Literature and Gender Studies. She has taught courses at JTS, The Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, the JCC in Manhattan, and other adult education programs in New York City.

Her most recent publications include, Packing Up an Office: The Work of Mourning and the Creation of an Archive, in Prooftexts, and she is co-editor, along with David Stern, of the forthcoming book, American Hebraist: Essays on Modern Hebrew and Jewish Literature and Literary Culture by Alan Mintz. Both publications are in honor of her former dissertation advisor at JTS, Alan Mintz z”l.


Dr. Rabbi Barat Ellman (Jewish Theological Seminary of America, ’04, ’11) is a scholar of Hebrew Bible. Her areas of research interests include: biblical religion and theology, the social world reflected in the Bible, and ways to draw upon biblical material in contemporary social justice work. She is the author of Memory and Covenant: The Role of Israel’s and God’s Memory in Sustaining the Deuteronomic and Priestly Covenants (Fortress, 2013).

A Wexner Graduate Fellow and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Rabbi Dr. Ellman is an adjunct professor of Theology at Fordham University and on the faculty of the Bard Prison Initiative. In addition to her academic positions, Rabbi Dr. Ellman is actively involved in social justice work with organizations such as Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ); T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights; Just LeadershipUSA; and New Sanctuary Coalition.


Rabbi Jeffrey S. Fox currently serves as the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox institution to ordain women to function as full members of the clergy. Rabbi Fox was the first graduate of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and previously served as the spiritual leader of Kehilat Kesher: The Community Synagogue of Tenafly and Englewood for nearly seven years. In addition, he has taught as part of the faculty of the Drisha Institute, Mechon Hadar and the Florence Melton Adult Education Center. He is also a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Harman Institute of Jerusalem. He lives in Riverdale with his wife Beth and their four boys.


Dr. Aaron Koller is professor of Near Eastern studies at Yeshiva University, where he is chair of the Beren Department of Jewish Studies. His most recent book is Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Jewish Thought (JPS/University of Nebraska Press, 2020), and his last book was Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge University Press). He also writes often on Semitic philology. Aaron has served as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and held research fellowships at the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research and the Hartman Institute. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife, Shira Hecht-Koller, and their children.


Dr. David Kraemer is the Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian (Director of The Library) at The Jewish Theological Seminary, where he has also served as Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics for many years. As Librarian, Prof. Kraemer is at the helm of the most extensive collection of Judaica—rare and contemporary—in the Western hemisphere.

On account of the size and importance of the collection, Prof. Kraemer is instrumental in setting policy and establishing vision for projects of international importance. Prof. Kraemer is a prolific author and commentator. His books include The Mind of the Talmud (1990), Responses to Suffering in Classical Rabbinic Literature (1995), The Meanings of Death in Rabbinic Judaism (2000), and Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages (Routledge, 2007), among others. His latest book, Rabbinic Judaism: Space and Place, will appear shortly.

Prof. Kraemer is a popular lecturer and teacher. He was associated for many years with CLAL—The National Jewish Center of Learning and Leadership—under whose auspices he lectured around the country. He has also been a teacher at The Skirball Institute for Adult Jewish Study (Temple Emanuel) and Meah (Hebrew College of Boston).

Dr. Kraemer lives in New York City.


Cantor Sarah Myerson proudly serves the community of Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, New York. She was commissioned by the Cantors Assembly in 2018, and invested by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2015, conferred with Diploma of Hazzan and Master of Sacred Music. She received her Bachelor of Music (Composition) degree, honors first class, from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Australia.

Cantor Sarah continues to write and perform new compositions, especially in Yiddish and Hebrew, and has developed a profile as a musician, speaker, educator, and Yiddish dance teacher and leader. Cantor Sarah’s Art As Midrash classes are based on her art history and biblical exegesis studies with Dr. Shulamit Laderman at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem.


Rabbi Daniel Nevins is the Pearl Resnick Dean of the JTS Rabbinical School. He also serves as dean of the Division of Religious Leadership, which includes the H.L. Miller Cantorial School, the Center for Pastoral Education, and the Block-Kolker Center for Spiritual Arts. A graduate of JTS and of Harvard College, where he studied Middle Eastern History, he worked for 13 years as Rabbi of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, MI. A scholar of contemporary Jewish law, Rabbi Nevins serves on The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, for which he has written responsa on topics of science, technology, bioethics, sexuality and disability. His writings can be found at Rabbi Nevins lives in NYC with his family.


Dr. Raymond Scheindlin is professor emeritus of medieval Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the author of books and academic studies of the subject. He is also active as a translator from Hebrew, having published a verse translation of the Book of Job and translations of other works, both literary and academic. He has been associated with the Kane Street Synagogue since 1974, serving as part-time rabbi from 1979 to 1982. In addition, for over forty years, he served as High Holiday Cantor and continues to lead a Yom Kippur study session. His books include: Wine, Women, and Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life (1986); The Gazelle: Medieval Hebrew Poems on God, Israel, and the Soul (1991); A Short History of the Jewish People (1998); The Book of Job (1999); and The Song of the Distant Dove: Judah Halevi’s Pilgrimage (2008). His most recent book is Vulture in a Cage: Poems by Solomon Ibn Gabirol, which appeared in 2016. More information about his books and a selection of his informal essays are available on his website,


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