It is 7:48 a.m., and commuters on their way to Manhattan fill the platform at the Inwood Long Island Rail Road station. As the 7:53 pulls into the station, passengers take their seats and open the morning paper or close their eyes for a little rest before a long workday.
But to some passengers waiting at the end of the platform, taking the train is more than just a means of transportation to another destination. For them, this ride itself serves a worthwhile purpose, providing a dose of inspiration for the rest of the business day.
They board the last car, and open volumes of Talmud instead of newspapers. They will soon be joined by more Talmud-toting commuters at the Lawrence and Cedarhurst stations. By the time the train pulls out of Woodmere after 8 a.m., the daily LIRR Talmud class is all aboard and ready to begin.
Every morning these commuters study and debate aspects of Jewish law, their daily goal being a blatt, both sides of a big Talmudic page. As the train moves from station to station on its way into the city, the group makes its way through the Talmud, the foundation of Jewish life and lore.
Conducting this study group is Rabbi Pesach Lerner of Young Israel, while a smaller Torah class takes an earlier train with Rabbi Kadosh.
These commuters have hitched their wagon to the page-a-day Talmud program, called Daf Yomi, founded by Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin 80 years ago. Followed by thousands of Jews around the world, it completes the Talmud every seven years. In September 1997, the Siyum completion celebration filled Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum. A similar daily study program established by the Lubavitcher Rebbe completes the study of Maimonides' texts in a year. As 'People of the Book,' Jews can be found studying all over the place. But this venue is unique. Most other Daf Yomi groups meet in established synagogues or yeshivas, and lately, also in offices during work breaks. But these LIRR students are moving ahead in a yeshiva-on-wheels.
While learning on a train has its obvious distractions, the natural to and fro swaying of the train actually enhances the traditional talmudic 'shuckling' back and forth,' mused one student.
Rabbi Lerner raises his voice slightly so he is heard over the commotion. When a participant's cell phone rings, he reaches quickly to shut it off.
As the train fills, passengers who are not part of the class may take their seats among the class members, seeming undisturbed by the study session around them.
Passengers hand their tickets to the understanding conductor, who will at times pause a moment not to disturb a complicated train of thought. The conductor casts a confused glance at Rabbi Lerner, who gesticulates with his hands while reading the ancient Aramaic text. It's not the language barrier, because when the Rabbi switches to English, the conductor appears even more perplexed.
The discussion is peppered with Hebrew, Yiddish and ancient Aramaic that even the English is difficult for the unseasoned. Even some of the regular students, including lawyers, accountants, computer specialists, stockbrokers and rabbis, have difficulty grasping the Talmudic intricacies.
A female member of the study group, Lisa Zahn, an accountant and mother of four, says she takes this train instead of a later one so she can participate in the class.
Even some non-Jewish passengers try to follow the discussion. Ms. Jones says she intentionally comes to the back even though she doesn't fully understand. " I enjoy the conversation. I don't understand all they say, but I pick up something." says Louise Jones. Another non-Jewish passenger, Ann-Marie Maitland, says "it's interesting, like Bible study."
"It starts my day right, and helps me use my free time wisely," says Chaim Reiss, adding that "it also developed a camaraderie among us." Members of the group who did not initially know each other, now invite each other to family weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Last May, the LIRR study group celebrated its completion of the Talmud's last 2,711th page. To mark the occasion, the LIRR added an extra "Talmud Celebration" car for friends and family to join. Former conductors who collected their train tickets over the years were invited back for the party, and a special LIRR representative was on hand to make it all official.