Tree Of Life

Morris (Maury) Garten of Fedder and Garten, a Baltimore law firm, said he feels similarly to Rabbi Bergman. He approached Etz Chaim because he felt that as a Jewish communal leader he could not limit himself to trying to engage with people purely with cultural references. He believed Torah knowledge would make him a better Jewish leader, and he thinks it has.

“If you are not able to take a look at Pirkei Avot or understand historical Jewish issues and think them through in terms of how they relate to today’s events, then I think you are missing out on the true essence of what our faith is about,” Garten said.

The Torah’s truth, as Etz Chaim professionals like to call it, can be found through learning, engaging with Jewish texts or by experiencing the beauty of a Judaism-focused lifestyle.

Effie Flamm runs the Jewish Collegiate Network, but most people just know his work as “Effie and Penina,” the latter being his wife. He works at four college campuses — Towson University, Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County — and his bread-and-butter program is inviting 50 to 80 students to his home each week for Shabbat.

“The main program is our Shabbos table,” said Flamm warmly. “At my home, they can see how a Jewish life can be meaningful. They see the orientation to family, when I bless the kids, the singing. … The dust of Shabbos is powerful.”

This makes sense to Board Chair Chaim Gottesman: “Standing around and schmoozing — that is where the best connections happen — not in the classroom,” he said.

Toby Friedman quotes Pirkei Avot: “I gained much knowledge from my teachers, but from my students more than from any of them.”

Toby Friedman quotes Pirkei Avot: “I gained much knowledge from my teachers, but from my students more than from any of them.”

Flamm has been running JCN for 13 years, and he now recruits simply by word of mouth. The new structure at Etz Chaim, though, allows him to better pass graduates along to Perlman for Wow!, or he sometimes refers them for one-on-one learning through the Partners in Torah program run by Toby Friedman.

Students have changed over the years, however, Flamm said; and while his job is easier in some ways today because he is more connected, many aspects have become increasingly challenging. For example, he said when he started he would hear back from students about whether or not they were coming for Shabbat by the Tuesday before. Now, he hears on Friday — and usually by text message.

Additionally, students are less on campus and in public spaces. They are “in the cloud, in their rooms.”

Still, he said, the students get turned on by the beauty of Yiddishkeit [Judaism].

“They love my wife, love the kids” — (he has six) — “and I invite other young couples over so they can see what young, married Orthodox couples are like. You have to see it to understand it,” said Flamm.

What can be easily seen with Flamm — and all of the Etz Chaim staff — is their warmth and nonjudgmental approach. Perlman painted the Etz Chaim interior with warmer and more inviting colors recently. Deep oranges and greens replaced starch white walls. Couches in the lounges make the facility feel more like a home (although Perlman does not wait for young adults to come to her; she runs programs in bars and coffee shops or wherever young people meet).

Said Cornberg: “They greet everyone with a friendly smile and an open mind. They don’t care where you are from. They only care about showing you the beauty [of Torah] and all that it has to offer. … The 20s and 30s are a very exploratory time; young people are on a journey to find out who they are, what they want to become, how they want to develop themselves religiously. For this, Etz Chaim is the perfect place.”

Building A Unified Next Gen
This nonjudgmental approach and the belief that everyone learns from each other is an essential ingredient in the organization’s success. It is not Orthodox. It is not Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist. It is just Jewish. And everyone who comes in, said Friedman, is considered to be equal to everyone else.

“When you bring people into Torah, you are not bringing them into a club of people who have made it; anyone who thinks they have made it is so far from making it,” said Perlman. “We are bringing them to Torah wisdom that is theirs anyway.”

Friedman said she thinks the reason she has been able to grow partners in Torah from 10 chevrutot [learning pairs] to 110 is because “they are not bribed, there is no Israel trip at the end, and there is no reward at the end. If they just want to learn something, we will get them a partner who is nonjudgmental and will do [his or her] job. The purpose is not kiruv; it is to make a more knowledgeable Jew.”

She also noted that with all of the learning pairs she makes (and she has made hundreds over the years), she is careful to ensure that both parties understand this is not a typical student-teacher relationship. Quoting Pirkei Avot, Friedman said, “I gained much knowledge from my teachers, but from my students more than from any of them.”

She continued: “This is really true. There isn’t a person who comes in that you cannot learn from. They have interesting jobs, they can be very generous people in different ways. … I think we really do see them as equals. It is not like, ‘I am here and this is what I am going to give you.’ It is very much a give-and-take, and someone who can’t do this give-and-take is not a good person for Partners in Torah.”

Friedman said that most often the relationship between the learner and the studier becomes all-encompassing and a friendship forms. They have Shabbat together, go out together for coffee — and that is really the other purpose and the other success.

“We are building a bridge. We are showing [the less observant] that we [the Orthodox] are the same as everyone else, and we just like to share and bring people into our lives,” she said.

Friedman was adamant that a part of the secret sauce for ensuring a strong next generation of Jewish people is Jewish unity. She said, “We have to talk to each other, and we are really one community.”

There is a misconception by some non-Orthodox Jews that the Orthodox part of the community is out to “convert you” or that “we don’t look upon you as Jews,” Friedman said. “This is not true. This is a big lie.”

The message she aims for: “We are a nation, and we are bound together by one mystical soul. We need everyone. Everyone plays a role in the Jewish nation, and no one should be forgotten. No Jew should be left behind.”

Said Rabbi Yisroel Porter, “We are illuminating the path for a personal Jewish journey. Everyone needs their journey. Connecting eternal Torah with modern, contemporary Jews is really doable.”

The Friends of Etz Chaim 37th Gala Celebration
“The Voices of Etz Chaim”
Monday, Dec. 16 at 6 p.m.
Grand Historic Venue
225 N. Charles St., Baltimore
Remembering Chonon Shugarman; Celebrating the leadership of Rabbi Shlomo Porter and Rabbi Nitzan Bergman
Learn more at

Talking torah
When we talk about the Jewish canon, what books comprise that?
The Hebrew canon contains 24 books, one for each of the scrolls on which these works were written in ancient times. The Bible is organized into three main sections: the Torah, or “Teaching,” also called the Pentateuch or the “Five Books of Moses”; the evi’im, or Prophets; and the Ketuvim, or Writings. It is often referred to as the Tanakh, a word combining the first letter from the names of each of the three main divisions.

The five books of the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

The books of the Nevi’im: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and (together in one book known as The Book of the Twelve) the 12 Minor Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi).

The Ketuvim: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles.

Jewish Identity By Generation
The changing nature of Jewish identity stands out sharply when the Pew Research Center survey’s results are analyzed by generation. Fully 93 percent of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion (called “Jews by religion” in the report); just 7 percent describe themselves as having no religion (“Jews of no religion”). By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults — the millennials — 68 percent identify as Jews by religion, while 32 percent describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief —


  1. Rivka Malka Perlman says

    Thank you Maayan for a truly beautiful article about Etz Chaim. When you interviewed us I really felt like you heard very word. and now that I see your writing, I see that you not only heard, but you understood. Thank you for giving us this chance to share what we love!

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