Jewish learning The Simple Joy of Conversation
Each of the past four springs, I have participated in Hebrew College’s Eser class. Eser offers interested participants the chance to engage in serious and meaningful discussion about Jewish topics. For 10 consecutive weeks, we meet in a group member’s home, gather around a table, and talk.
I was drawn to Eser because it offered an informal learning environment resembling a small college discussion class. When I moved to the Boston area in 2016 to start a new job, I had just finished school and found myself missing the intellectual atmosphere that comes with living on a college campus. For me, Eser was a weekly opportunity to forget about the frivolities of adult life and to participate in a lively discussion on a variety of Jewish topics and sources. It has been a can’t miss event for me — a chance to flex the intellectual part of my brain that is often overlooked by professional life.
Come March, I eagerly signed up for this year’s Eser course. As the COVID 19 pandemic struck, social distancing became an urgent mantra and our lives transitioned online. Eser, too, made the trek to Zoom after only one in person meeting. At first, I was skeptical — in these times, it can be hard not to be. Navigate to any online news site and you’re bound to find an article reciting the technical limitations and participatory restrictions of gathering with people virtually. I expected that Eser would struggle to shift online, because, for me, the program has always been about the learning, dialogue, and connections that come with propinquity.
But this spring, my Eser group has shown me a different side of our new virtual reality. Each week, everyone approached our conversations with genuine interest, kindness, and energy. The discussions were lively, interactive, and not impeded by the virtual medium. In fact, the group was so successful that we have decided to keep meeting even after the course ended — with a different member leading a discussion on a Jewish topic of their choice.
It’s worth reflecting on why Eser was successfully this spring in the midst of a chaotic, uncertain, and sometimes-frightening world. After taking an informal poll of our group members, a few common themes came through — including meeting new people at a time when almost everyone is stuck at home and giving us the structure that a regular post-work event typically adds to our weeks. While these certainly resonate with me, I think there is another factor at play: the simple joy that comes with having interesting conversations with well-meaning people.
It’s easy for Zoom interactions to seem forced and unnatural. Work calls often have agendas and social calls often lack a dynamic that’s available in person. But the beauty of Eser is that there was no pretense, no real expectation. The purpose was simply to learn and connect. In these uncertain times, I think we can all take solace in that.