Under normal circumstances, their paths never should have crossed.
The son of a Mexican father and a Jewish mother, Ben Rios grew up far from Woodmere, New York, where Rabbi Shlomo Drebin lived. But as a student at Chicago’s DePaul University, Ben found himself intrigued by his Jewish heritage and he struck up a relationship with the rabbi who ran the campus outreach program. In time, he found himself looking to further broaden his spiritual knowledge, and after signing up with Partners in Torah in 2015, he was paired with Rabbi Drebin, the start of a long and fruitful relationship.
While the two simply chatted in their early conversations or discussed the basics of Judaism, over the years they made the leap to serious learning, tackling Gemara and halacha. Ben has been learning in the Skokie yeshiva for the past several years and when the time came for him to make a siyum on Maseches Taanis, Rabbi Drebin stepped in to make sure everything went smoothly.
“Rabbi Drebin has been the most consistent force in my growth,” said Ben. “I’ve had many rabbis and people come and go and only Shlomo has been there since the beginning and is still there constantly.”
Ben’s story is one of Partners in Torah’s many successes. With tens of thousands of religious awakenings fostered worldwide, it is hard to believe that the worldwide telephone Jewish educational program took its first major steps towards becoming a household name in a city known for snow-capped glaciers and Native American totem poles. But in truth, the story of Partners in Torah’s exponential growth began in the most unexpected of places – Alaska.
It was 1999 when Rabbi Eli Gewirtz received a phone call from Ron Adler, a Ketchikan social worker who wanted to expand his knowledge of Judaism but lived quite a distance from the nearest Jewish community. With a long history in the world of outreach, Rabbi Gewirtz had already launched an adult education program in Twin Rivers, New Jersey in the eighties, with dozens of Lakewood volunteers making the weekly 25 mile trip for an hour of one-on-one learning with local residents. After relocating to Passaic in 1993, Rabbi Gewirtz created a similar initiative in a local shul and the idea of matching students and mentors caught fire, with additional branches popping up in other shuls, schools and Jewish community centers. Within six years, Partners in Torah had spread to 40 locations but the historic turning point came with Adler’s request to facilitate a long distance learning arrangement, one that ultimately spanned a distance of nearly 3,500 miles.
“Ron’s brother was in Elizabeth, New Jersey and was learning at one of our programs and he wanted to participate as well,” recalled Rabbi Gewirtz. “I matched him up with Yosef, a psychologist from Brooklyn, someone who I thought would be a good fit and instead of learning together in person they did it over the telephone. We reimbursed Yosef monthly for the cost of the calls and over time, the idea of learning by telephone mushroomed beyond anything we could have ever imagined.”
The Ron and Yosef pairing was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and Partners in Torah soon found itself making shidduchim between those who wanted to find out more about Judaism and mentors who were happy to share whatever they knew, the limitations of geographic boundaries smashed to smithereens by the wonders of telecommunications. The Partners in Torah phone model worked on multiple levels – both students and mentors loved the relative anonymity of phone learning and the flexibility of both time and subject matter, and it became abundantly clear that participants on both sides were finding themselves enriched by the experience. Fast forward to 2019 and Partners in Torah has seen over 76,000 men and women from 2,337 cities in 39 different countries learning together, touching the lives of people from all walks of life.
Rabbi Gewirtz noted that Partners in Torah’s primary focus is to help all Jews build a proud, lifelong connection to Judaism. The mentor-student experience is about building relationships between like minded individuals, having enjoyable conversations and fostering a sense of caring that carries through, even over the phone.
“This isn’t about telling people how to live their lives,” explained Rabbi Gewirtz. “People who come to us are looking for a connection to their Judaism and our goal is for them to feel that they belong in the Jewish community because right now, the overwhelming majority do not.”
The need for additional mentors to learn with the many Bens of this world continues to grow and chairman Steve Savitsky is hoping that a new digital platform with an even wider array of resources will draw thousands of new volunteers. Savitsky noted that mentors need not be seasoned educators and that virtually everyone with a Torah background has what it takes to teach, spreading the glow of yiddishkeit by learning from a sefer with their student, explaining why they keep kosher or discussing the beauty of Shabbos.
“We are so blessed to be living lives that are defined by Torah and mitzvot,” said Savitsky. “It is truly incredible to be able to share what we know with others.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Partners in Torah COO Moe Mernick.
“Any person who has had the benefit of a Jewish education can change the life of another Jew in just a few minutes every week,” said Mernick. “Imagine the impact we could have if each of us shared the beauty, depth and relevance of Torah with another Jew. Not only could we light up the world, we could literally change the course of Jewish history.”
Learn with a fellow Jew for 30 minutes a week and help shape the Jewish future. Sign up at www.partnersintorah.org/mentor