A new ‘Jewish tavern’ aims to bring Torah learning to Boston’s Jewish masses
Lehrhaus, a bar-meets-beit midrash from the founder of Sefaria, has national ambitions
Opaque plastic wrap covers the windows of a nondescript storefront in Somerville, Mass., Cambridge’s less haughty neighbor, leaving passersby to guess what business might soon open here, less than a mile from Harvard.
A minimalist poster tacked to the window offers a very brief explanation: “Lehrhaus, a Jewish tavern and house of learning. Opening soon.”
Next door is a popular lavender-framed tapas bar, and on this hot summer afternoon, students and young professionals zip by on vintage road bikes. In the week since the Lehrhaus sign went up, and since a Boston food blog discovered the new neighborhood establishment, more than 400 people have signed up for its email list.
“People are excited about this,” Rabbi Charlie Schwartz, Lehrhaus director, told Jewish Insider in an interview inside the still-in-construction space. His collaborator, Lehrhaus board chair Joshua Foer, jumped in: “This is gonna be the place to be and the best kosher food in New England, if not farther afield. And good Torah, and community.”
To the extent that Lehrhaus could be compared to anything, its closest analog would probably be an Irish pub, rather than a synagogue multipurpose room or a grab-and-go café at the local JCC. What Schwartz and Foer hope to bring to this vibrant Jewish community across the Charles River from Boston is something akin to a neighborhood watering hole and community library, with educators on hand to guide people in learning Jewish text.
“We want to build on-ramps to Jewish learning in an environment that people understand and want to spend time in,” said Schwartz, calling Lehrhaus a place “where people can come and spend time and want to linger and engage in delicious food and drink and Jewish text.”
If Boston’s Jewish community catches on to Lehrhaus, which is set to open in September or October, Foer and Schwartz anticipate taking the concept nationwide: “This is a project that ultimately has national ambitions, and we think that this is a pilot for something that should exist in lots of places. That’s our long-term goal,” said Foer. “If you make it work here,” added Schwartz, “I think we can make it work in Cleveland, and Detroit, and D.C. and L.A., in Brooklyn and Miami.”
While Lehrhaus is the first “Jewish tavern” of its kind (or at least “since the Pale of Settlement,” Foer noted), the establishment follows a host of creative projects that have sought to bring together young Jews, especially in New York. Makor, a now-defunct “cultural mecca for young Jews” on the Upper West Side, offered a bar and more secular programming. Sara Zacharia, a New York rabbi, operated a pop-up “Bet Art Midrash,” where young Jews could learn text and respond through art at venues across Brooklyn.
Foer, a bestselling author, has a track record of bringing innovation to Jewish learning and texts. A decade ago he created Sefaria, a digital library of Jewish texts with thousands of original works and commentaries available in several languages. He met Schwartz, who most recently spent four years as senior director of Jewish education at Hillel International, at a co-working space in Brookline.
The pair started going to the gym together, and when Schwartz moved to a new house, he tasked Foer — who also has experience with woodworking — with building him a dining room table. Over lengthy conversations while constructing the table, throughout the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, they came up with the idea for Lehrhaus.
“What does it mean, at a time when everyone is retracting and isolating, to create, to really be dreaming, and moving towards a physical space where people can gather?” Schwartz recalled discussing.
“As a 30-something-year-old-dude, both of us, like, there’s not that many opportunities to talk to another person deeply about stuff, about anything,” added Foer. “And here’s this ancient solution.”
Lehrhaus chose its location, right on the Cambridge/Somerville line, because the neighborhood is a hub of Greater Boston’s young Jewish community, and one that they feel is underserved by Jewish organizations.
A few blocks away is Temple Beth Shalom, better known as the Tremont Street Shul, a traditional synagogue that mainly serves the egalitarian Orthodox community. Many locals are graduate students at nearby institutions like Harvard or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Tufts University, but campus institutions like Chabad or Hillel don’t always appeal to people in their 20s and 30s looking for community.
“If you were to put a pin in a map of North America at the location that had the densest population of post-college Jews with the least Jewish infrastructure, you might very well put that pin at this intersection right here,” said Foer.
During the day, Lehrhaus will be a members-only space for people who join the institution’s beit midrash and want to stop by to study alone or in hevruta, with a partner. In the evening, Lehrhaus will be open to the public, with a bar and dining program designed by award-winning veterans of Boston’s restaurant scene.
The food will be “pescatarian kosher.” (So Lehrhaus will be closed on Friday night and Saturday for Shabbat, opening Saturday evenings in the winter.) A sampling of menu items shared with JI includes a signature “Lehrhaus kugel” with crispy Roman artichoke, and fish schnitzel with fries seasoned with Old Bay, the tangy spice popular on Maryland seafood offerings.
“It’s a Jewish tavern. The milieu is a Jewish one,” said Schwartz, adding that even the menu offers an opportunity for “passive learning moments that you can incorporate in a non-preachy way.” Take, for instance, those Old Bay fries: “What does it mean when the server knows the Jewish history of Old Bay?” (The seasoning was created by a Holocaust survivor.)
“Every drink is inspired by different flavor from the Jewish world,” Foer explained, like the Yemenite espresso martini (vodka, cold brew and hawaij, a Yemenite spice mixture that usually contains cumin, black pepper, turmeric and cardamom) or a drink called “Schug on the Beach,” akin to a spicy margarita with schug, a green chili sauce used as a condiment in Middle Eastern dishes.
Foer and Schwartz believe the food and drinks alone will be enough to get people in the door. But the goal is not just to be a great kosher restaurant. Jewish learning will be at the heart of Lehrhaus, though its creators do not want to cram it down patrons’ throats; they hope to make learning appealing, and also allow easy entry points for people who aren’t too familiar with text study.
“We have a drink menu and a beverage menu. What if we had a learning menu?” asked Schwartz.
Lehrhaus is working with a handful of local and national Jewish organizations to create pluralistic content. Partners include the Jewish Review of Books, the Newton-based, nondenominational rabbinical school Hebrew College, the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and Hadar, the New York egalitarian yeshiva. (Hartman and Hadar both expanded to Boston earlier this year.) Early funders to Lehrhaus, which is operating as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that hopes to offset most costs through profits from the bar, include Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the city’s federation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Natan Fund, One8 Foundation, Schusterman Foundation and the Aviv Foundation.
Still, Foer and Schwartz understand that adopting a pluralist ethos won’t please everyone. “We want all sorts of different types of texts, and people teaching texts, to live and thrive in this space,” Schwartz said. “There’s certain barriers that we’re actually putting up, like we are serving alcohol and learning Torah. That’s already going to limit the types of people who feel comfortable in the space.”
For newcomers, getting acquainted with Lehrhaus’ beit midrash might look like four-session “intro to Talmud” class, or sitting down with a “learning guide” — a Hebrew College intern, perhaps, or a local community member who wants to share their knowledge. Schwartz and Foer also expect to host public discussions with visiting scholars, educators and Jewish public figures. The name comes from a term coined by the early-20th-century German Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig, who hosted a salon called the Freie Jüdische Lehrhaus, or “free Jewish house of learning.”
“To the extent that American Jews even know what [a beit midrash] is, certainly most would not feel comfortable entering one of those spaces if they even knew where to find it,” noted Foer. “We’re bringing that to the street, to the storefront, and also, at the same time, creating a place where Jews can gather socially, communally, as Jews, which also doesn’t exist.”