August 22, 2019

Her Torah Study Group Inspires Loyal Following

For six years, Judy Freier, right, has been leading a weekly parsha study group at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, about two dozen adults, most of them congregants of Valley Beth Shalom, gathered in a lounge at the Encino synagogue for a weekly parsha discussion group led by Judy Freier. 

Freier is not a rabbi or cantor. She doesn’t speak Hebrew. But for the past six years she’s been attracting a loyal group of participants to her talks about Torah.

“I have chutzpah,” Freier freely admitted, when asked about the origins of the group.

Almost seven years ago, the Tarzana resident joined Valley Beth Shalom. A month later, she approached Rabbi Ed Feinstein and said, “You’re missing something I’d like to see happen — a Torah study group that is lay led. A discussion thing.”

Feinstein gave his blessing. A few months later, Freier posted a notice about the new group in the temple’s bulletin, and she was off and running. Never mind that the New York native grew up in a secular household and had no formal Jewish training.

“I grew up knowing I was Jewish but not knowing what that meant,” Freier said. “My first husband, a Holocaust survivor, really gave me the gift of religion. When we got married, he introduced me to the joys of the synagogue, the joys of the holidays and the joys of being Jewish.”

Each week, Freier, a former middle school math teacher with a doctorate in education, spends 10 to 15 hours preparing for the upcoming session. She arrives with dozens of sources and articles painstakingly marked with sticky notes. Over the years, she has assembled a home library of more than 100 reference books. She always tries to bring something new for the group. After all, some of the regulars have been with her from the start. But there are certain books that she cites regularly, among them Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson’s “The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Visions, and Dreams.” 

“I am not an authority,” Freier said. “I’m a facilitator of learning. My goal is to make it accessible because I always felt it was inaccessible. And most Jews feel that way.”

Usually, Freier begins each session with a brief summary of the week’s parsha, followed by a question. “I want to hear your interpretation,” she recently said to the group. “In your mind, how do you view the kosher laws?”

For the most part, Freier embraces disparate views. “This is so Jewish that we argue,” she exclaimed during one session. “I love it.”

Freier strives for the four levels of Torah study known by the acronym PARDES: Peshat is the direct reading; Remez is the metaphorical, or the meaning behind it; Derash is an interpretation of what can be drawn from it.

“The last level you almost never get to — Sod,” Freier said. “I call it the aha moment, the secret. That is what we try to seek. … I try to get away from just the peshat.”

Discussions are robust. But Freier admits she runs a “very tight ship. People have to raise their hands,” she said. And she is quick to put an end to any side chatter or private conversations.

“She makes sure that everyone is participating and speaking, to some extent,” said Ron Reiter, a Sherman Oaks psychologist who has been attending Freier’s Saturday group since its inception.

“Judy does amazing research,” he added. “She really spends hours upon hours, and I always learn something new. She’s a very good teacher. I really don’t feel like I walk away with the same old, same old.” 

For Freier, leading the weekly sessions has been fulfilling. “The more I study, the more I am immersed in it,” she said. “I think it is one of the most inspirational ways to spend your time.” 

So much so that her enthusiasm for the material often spills over into other parts of her life:

“My friends go, ‘Here she goes again …’ ”

But she has no plans to stop.

“This to me is such a calling,” she said. “I jumped into a pool without seeing if there was any water in it and the water filled up. It’s changed my life in so many ways. It’s made me see things through different eyes.”