IYUN: Building Connections Through Torah Study
July 25th, 2022
When people study Torah together in groups, they build powerful, lasting social bonds. That’s the premise of IYUN, a new(ish) project that helps educators, lay leaders, and organizations build and lead multi-week Torah learning circles. IYUN’s curricula are not just a sheet of sources, but rather a highly choreographed, step-by-step model to run a successful multi-week cohort experience for 8-20 adults through a specific educational arc. While experts and rabbis are more accessible than ever through online lectures and public events, IYUN focuses as much on the social design as it does on the Torah content to build a highly connected chevra of people who “share their lives together, knowing that we’re all in the same boat out here, and we need to show up for each other if we’re ever going to reach land (just ask Noah).”
This has been an incredibly enriching and wonderful experience for me. I’ve made so many new friends and we’ve bonded in a way few groups do (in my experience). I’ve loved expanding my Jewish knowledge, gleaned not only from the texts–loved those–but also from my fellow learners. We each are so different, but together we grew so fond of each other and created a Jewish group consciousness. I really looked forward to our sessions each week not only for the learning but to see my new friends again!
– IYUN participant
Adults need the space and “the right folk” to have big conversations together. This is especially true during liminal life moments, when people often engage with IYUN as they are searching, exploring, and seeking meaningful connections. The years when someone leaves their childhood home, for example, but before they set down roots in a new family home, are opportune times to encounter deep jewish living.
Whether partnering with congregations, individuals, JCCs, Moishe Houses, and beyond, IYUN helps leaders each step of the way as they craft their multi-week Torah learning cohort—from curricular content, participant recruitment, marketing materials, group dynamics, teacher training, and ongoing Help Desk support. IYUN staff teach educators how to prepare and successfully execute each session and are always available to troubleshoot, answer questions, listen, and support group leaders quickly and in real time. With this support, IYUN’s facilitators “know how to read a room and get people talking.”
Somewhere in the whirlwind that is this COVID pandemic, I started running out of steam as an educator. No matter how interesting I thought the topics were, my lesson plans began to feel a bit stale. The IYUN program and their team of educators saved me from this difficulty… Thanks to IYUN’s onboarding process and educator training, something magical happened when I began teaching their material to my students. They reminded me that I was not teaching alone… The joy of Jewish learning is that it can be experienced in dialogue, in argument, in community. Being a part of IYUN reminded me of this joy. Anyone who teaches is never alone. We are connected to those who taught, those who teach, and those who will teach. IYUN rekindled a spark that was dwindling a bit within me.
– Rabbi Jason Bonder, Congregation Beth Or
In just its first year, IYUN engaged over 1,000 adult learners in more than 70 learning circles. This coincided with the pandemic where more Jews asked big questions about their life and purpose, as they sought meaning, community, and connection. Building on the project’s initial success, IYUN’s leaders, Rabbi Daniel Smokler and Erica Frankel, see a unique opening to engage many thousands of adults in big conversations through Torah. This opportunity they say is due in part to the fruits of decades of outstanding work in Jewish education, making the case in thought and practice for the importance of widespread Torah study. Their previous work growing Hillel’s Jewish Learning Fellowship—now on 200+ campuses with over 20,000 alumni—demonstrates that Torah study, once an afterthought among Jewish college students, is an integral part of the Hillel experience. Those college alumni are the adults now ready to lead and engage in Jewish communal life. And IYUN’s leaders are capitalizing on a chance—perhaps once in a generation or more—to reach beyond those who are currently studying and immediately adjacent to the next levels of Jewish life. With this approach, more adults at inflection points will experience new friendships, meaningful space for thought and reflections, and will develop a lasting love engagement with Torah and Jewish life.
Big Questions Bring Us Together
“Everyone’s welcome, everything’s on the table.” In the rapidly growing IYUN community of practice, educators share hard-fought operational intelligence, commiseration, celebration, and opportunities. IYUN welcomes more congregations, groups of friends, boards, school leaders, JCCs, federations, or giving circles into its community.
The Jim Joseph Foundation is a supporter of IYUN. Learn more at iyun.us.