Yaacov Kravitz was just starting to delve into Jewish studies at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem when Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, one of the most distinguished scholars in the world, walked into the classroom with a stack of freshly published volumes of the Talmud that he'd recently translated from Aramaic to modern Hebrew.
"We would be struggling looking at the text trying to figure out the words and he was quoting everything by heart," recalled Kravitz, now a Reconstructionist rabbi who teaches about spirituality on top of his full-time job as a psychologist. Here was somebody "who loved the material and loved Judaism, and he spoke about it with such caring and wisdom."
Some 40 years later, Steinsaltz has finished translating the final volume of the massive collection of ancient rabbinic writings on Jewish law and tradition. In honor of that feat, Kravitz will join dozens of educators around the world who are leading local study sessions in a "Global Day of Jewish Learning."
Jews from Miami to Mumbai, Australia to Azerbaijan, are expected to put aside their regular routines and turn their attention to the Talmud during what is being billed as the first worldwide, transdenominational event devoted to Jewish learning.
"It just seemed like it was the right thing to do to honor his tremendous contribution to Jewish learning," said Kravitz, who will lead a discussion at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park on how prayer functions in the life of a Jew, even if that person does not have a traditional view of God.
The "day of learning" concept was spearheaded by the Aleph Society, a New York-based organization Steinsaltz created in 1988 not just to support his work, but also his conviction that knowledge belongs to everyone. In addition to publishing hundreds of Steinsaltz' books and articles on the Talmud, Kabbalah and Chasidut, the agency serves as the central branch of his educational centers.
"When the realization hit all of us that he was going to be completing this monumental work, we sort of sat around and said, 'Look, it's customary to have a siyyum,' " a celebration of completion, said Ilan Kaufthal, an investment banker from North Jersey who volunteered to chair the project. "It became very clear to all of us that the right way to celebrate it is to have as many Jews as possible learning."
While Jewish learning is a daily ritual for many religiously observant Jews, this would be an unprecedented way to promote learning across denominational lines to "get to the essence of what unites people," he said.
"By learning together, you get a sense that we are one people in terms of where we come from," added Zeesy Schnur, a spokeswoman for the Aleph Society. "Issues may separate us, but there's one thing that brings us together, and that's Jewish text."
Support snowballed as the idea came together over the past year. Leadership from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements, as well as the locally based Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, endorsed the program. Dozens of national agencies joined in the planning process, including the Jewish Community Center Association, the Jewish Educational Service of North America, Jewish Federations of North America, Hillel and the Shefa Institute. More than 350 communities — and counting — submitted event listings for the website.
"Geographic boundaries don't seem to matter, languages don't seem to matter," said Kaufthal. "Everybody's getting together and celebrating the work of this one guy, and he's just completed something really important to the Jewish world and they want to be part of it."
The society raised a little more than $1 million to promote the project and create a curriculum. In consultation with Steinsaltz, event organizers selected seven themes from the Talmud tractate Ta'anit — environment, God, leadership, love, miracles, prayer and tzedakah — and hired education experts to develop materials that anyone could relate to, "regardless of their ability to read or understand all the text," said Schnur.
To create international buzz, they ran bright-yellow ads that posed provocative questions about Judaism's take on the meaning of sex, the existence of heaven and more. Readers were directed to a "Global Day" website to submit their opinions and to view responses from experts like Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
In Philadelphia, the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education/Jewish Outreach Partnership drew on its experience organizing the "One Book, One Community" program to encourage local partners to participate. From an initial meeting in the spring, eight programs emerged, though more may have developed independently, said coordinator Debbie Leon.
Gratz College, for example, is expecting 200-plus students, educators and community members for a Holocaust "Teach-In." Though the event was originally scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of Kristallnacht, an organizer said she was pleased that it also ended up aligning with such a large-scale education initiative, even if the topics of study are quite different.
Like Steinsaltz, Leon said she relishes the idea of the Talmud "being the center of everyone's attention."
"It's about our ability to learn from ourselves and to see the relevance in the thousands of years of conversation that we've had with the text," she said.
While Jewish learning is a continuum, Leon said there's something especially powerful about focusing attention to it at one particular time. "It's just kind of amazing to know that everybody's looking at one of the texts that you're looking at," she said. "This just gives a moment to have a powerful connection."
The magnitude of both the day and Steinsaltz's monumental work was what motivated Meryl Sussman to coordinate an accompanying program at Adath Jeshurun, which will include discussions led by Kravitz, as well as three other rabbis.
"It just really spoke to how I see myself as a Jew," explained Sussman, a guidance counselor at Saligman Middle School of the Perelman Jewish Day School. "As I was growing up, it was always very meaningful to me that Jews around the world had certain things in common. Because I had a siddur and I knew the prayers, I knew I could go to any synagogue in the world and be able to pray."
Getting the community to explore the same sections of Talmud, however, would not have been possible without Steinsaltz's transformative work, she added.
Before his translations, the Talmud presented automatic hurdles "unless you were educated in a yeshiva or you know Aramaic, which is not the most popular language in the world," said Kaufthal.
Steinsaltz "unpackages all that for you," with commentary and even diagrams, said Kravitz. "To just call it a translation is underestimating what this product is."
Even though the event is designed as a one-day blowout, Kaufthal said organizers hope it will encourage future learning. Smaller study groups may break off to continue delving into the topics. And some participants might find the event so stimulating that they seek out other types of Jewish learning, he said. The society will also make the material available to institutions that can't participate on Nov. 7, but still want to join in.
"No matter how much you learn," Kaufthal said, "there is never a finish."