They gather at the big synagogue on Massachusetts Avenue early every Saturday morning, long before the other members of Washington Hebrew Congregation start arriving for the regular 10:30 service.
Arming themselves with coffee and Danish, they find places at the big round tables in one of the classrooms and plunge into discussion of the Torah portion for the day even before the rabbi formally gets things under way.
This early morning Bible study class, dubbed ET for "Early Torah," has been attracting from 50 to 100 people every week since Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman started it three years ago.
Jews from Orthodox backgrounds, nonobservant Jews, converts to Judaism and sometimes a few Gentiles return week after week for the chance to study the Torah -- the first five books of the Bible -- with a man who can unlock its mysteries and make it come alive today.
"Rabbi Haberman has a way of tying the spiritual writings of the past to present daily living," said Todd Miller, a writer who began to attend ET shortly after graduating from the University of Michigan.
"It has been so stimulating -- so provocative -- so enjoyable," said Lillian Schultz, who was raised in a traditional Jewish home and comes to WHC for the intellectuality of its programs.
Schultz's evaluation is in the past tense because Haberman is formally retiring Monday after 17 years as spiritual leader of the big Reform congregation.
The class is expected to continue under the leadership of Haberman's successor, Rabbi Joseph P. Weinberg.
Early Torah grew out of another group Haberman started several years ago with a handful of people who met informally on Wednesdays to read aloud from the Torah, ask questions and offer comments.
Attendance at the weekday class grew quickly to an average of 200. Haberman retained the group's informality but, with so many participants, there was a constant flow of questions and little time for sustained discussions.
Haberman said he felt that a Saturday class would accommodate those who wanted to study the Bible but worked during the week. And he reasoned that an early Saturday hour would draw those really serious about studying.
Schultz, a retired government employe who was a veteran of the Wednesday class, said she told her husband before the first meeting, "We'd better go on Saturday in case no one else comes." Arriving at 8:25, they found about 50 people already there.
Haberman maintained an atmosphere of informality at the sessions by taking off his jacket, pouring himself a cup of coffee and asking newcomers to introduce themselves. Only then would he ask someone to read a passage from the week's Torah portion.
Making no attempt to cover the entire weekly passage, he concentrated on a few verses. Hands would go up, and questions would come -- always begetting more questions. Never lecturing, the rabbi also would ask questions: "What could this passage mean?" And a few people would venture their own midrashhim, or interpretations.
Haberman blends scholarship with humor that is sometimes pixieish. At times during the ET sessions, he would elaborate on the meaning of a passage by telling a story with the timing of a stand-up comedian.
"Rabbi Haberman is a scholar who is not 'locked in' on theology. He knows other religions, philosophy and history, and he never puts down anyone who asks a question," said Maurice Baller, a retired engineer who began to study philosophy four years ago after his wife died and he felt that he was floundering without reason or purpose.
"The Bible is a difficult book to read," Haberman said. "It is obscure because it is written in Elizabethan English, and ancient historical conditions are almost incomprehensible to the modern mind. But the Bible's pages are luminous with timeless meaning."
"I never had an opportunity to look at the Bible critically before, to ask, 'How do we read it and how do we put together what we are reading?' " said Pat Comella, a consultant and law student who recently converted to Judaism.
Haberman said that in retirement he plans to write, basing his work on insights gleaned from years of Bible study.
"God speaks to us through the Bible," he said. "Our ancestors recorded what they believed God had revealed to them. When we study the Bible today, the past tense is mysteriously transformed into the present tense, and we may hear an echo of God's voice. In our earnest search for the meaning of the Biblical text, when we study together we shall be guided by God's spirit toward a right understanding of the Scriptures."
"ET enriches my life for the rest of the week," said Ada Adler, who was raised in an ultra-Orthodox home where, though her brother had a tutor, girls had no opportunity to learn Torah. "It is a fulfillment for me, a rare opportunity."
Anita Mintz is a member of the Washington Hebrew Congregation and a participant in the Early Torah sessions.