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Two Jews Meet in a Storefront

March 3, 2011 By:
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Greg Hersh (left) and Rabbi Alexander Coleman deconstruct Jewish texts. Photo by Greg Bezanis

The teacher grew up in a secular Jewish home in Liverpool, England, before embracing Jewish law and becoming an Orthodox rabbi.

The student was raised in a Reform household in Connecticut, and disassociated himself from Judaism as a teen before toying with atheism and Buddhism. Now, he's trying to meld East and West, and is enrolled at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote.

Each Friday morning for the past six months, Rabbi Alexander Coleman, a 42-year-old father of six, has met with 26-year-old Greg Hersh inside the tiny Elkins Park storefront that's home to Etz Chaim, a Jewish educational organization under Orthodox auspices. The two delve into the 18th-century work The Path of the Just, an examination of the mitzvot and ethics by Moshe Chaim Luzatto.

The Center City-based organization has occupied the space near the Elkins Park train station for the past four years now. There, Coleman teaches group classes on the weekly Torah portion and other topics. He also offers tailored, one-on-one instruction.

'Yoke of the Commandments'

Both Coleman and Hersh acknowledge that the relationship that's developed across the Orthodox-Reconstructionist chasm is, if not unique, not particularly common.

Yet the bond that's developed illustrates the kind of encounters that can take place in an area with as many varied Jewish institutions and Jews as the Old York Road corridor.

So far, the two men have dug so deep in their discussions of the text -- it is, after all, about how to live your life -- that they have only made it through a few pages. Hersh said he hopes they can make it through Luzatto's three books during his six years at rabbinical school.

His new mentor "offers me a look into the Orthodox world," said the rabbinical student who lives in Wyncote, spent last year studying Hebrew in Jerusalem and before that lived in Thailand. Coleman "offers an intellectual and mystical understanding as to why one should burden oneself with the yoke of the commandments."

At RRC, Judaism is often deconstructed and analyzed from a postmodernist perspective, but Coleman offers a different angle, one that's full of Torah wisdom, said Hersh.

He added that his fellow students and professors are supportive of his efforts to learn from a more traditional approach.

Coleman, for his part, said he's never taught an RRC rabbinical student before and was careful to point out, that, from his perspective, "it's not that all branches of Judaism are acceptable, it's that all Jews are acceptable."

Both said that debates over theology -- and whether or not the Torah is a product of man or of God -- don't dominate the discussion.

Coleman said that the way the two met was a miracle of sorts -- maybe even bashert.

One Friday morning late last summer, Hersh drove over to Rolling's bakery in need of a challah for Shabbat dinner and the shop happened to be closed -- a rare week off for the owner.

Hersh went around the corner and saw the Etz Chaim sign; he stumbled in and asked Coleman if he knew of another bakery. Coleman was about to send him to a supermarket when he recalled that his wife, Karen, who usually bakes challah on Friday afternoon, happened to have completed the task the evening before.

Coleman jotted down his Northeast Philadelphia address and sent Hersh to his home for a loaf. A week later, the two men had coffee, and Coleman offered to teach him on a weekly basis.

While Coleman doesn't want to minimize differences, he noted that "there is so much value to be gained" from learning together and discussing, even debating, Jewish texts. And he's eager to teach Jews, regardless of background.

Coleman "blew my mind with some of his wisdom," acknowledged Hersh. "He's never backed out on me. It is a priority. It's really part of my rabbinic education. He's open to any question that I have."

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