The men and women seated in a law office conference room in downtown Minneapolis last week perused their reference books and engaged in lively debate. But most were not attorneys — and the debate was not about legal strategy.
This group was conferring about a different kind of law. The book in front of them was the Book of Genesis, with Jewish commentary. And participants were members of a St. Paul synagogue and Christian staffers at the law firm Henson Efron.
For 17 years, this unlikely gathering has taken place every Thursday at noon sharp — in large part as a tribute to their late Henson Efron colleague Bill Kampf, who launched a Torah study group in this unlikely location. Kampf died in 2005.
“It dawned on me [then] that one way to honor Bill was to make this permanent,” said Joe Dixon, the law firm’s president when Kampf died. “It would be in Bill’s memory, a reminder to everyone in the firm what he contributed to us, and the passion he brought to us.”
Did he ever imagine it would be going strong nearly two decades later?
Not at all, Dixon said, laughing.
“They’ve kind of adopted us,” added Janet Kampf, Bill’s wife. “A week after Pittsburgh [the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting], they had beautiful bouquets of flowers and a lovely note in that conference room. It’s really quite an amazing place.”
The 18th-floor reception area at Henson Efron offices began perking up just before noon last week, when about 15 people made their way to the conference room with windows overlooking downtown Minneapolis.
A comfortable routine was set in motion. Janet Kampf opened a cabinet door that has become the group’s own little storage area. She pulled out a dozen hard-bound copies of the Book of Genesis and a larger pictorial illustration of it, and began passing them around the table.
Rabbi Adam Spilker of Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul organized his study materials at the front of the long table. Another regular, Phil Goldman, slipped Spilker a lunch sandwich — something Kampf used to do. Soon, folks had filled all the chairs and propped open their books and commentaries in front of them.
“We’re studying Genesis, line by line,” said Spilker, who has led this group since it was launched here. “We started with Genesis 1. We’re on Chapter 28.”
The week’s discussion focused on the verse in which Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, has a dream in which he saw a ladder, or stairway, leading up to heaven with angels going up and down on it. The group opened with its reading in Hebrew.
And then, for the next hour, folks poured over various interpretations of the verse and engaged in a lively debate over their merits.
Dick Shinofield, a retired attorney in the law office and a longtime friend of Kampf, sat next to Spilker and listened with interest.
“I was raised Norwegian Lutheran,’’ said Shinofield, who has been coming to this group since Day One. “This is a great way to study the Bible. We have great discussions, and everyone participates.”
The study group wrapped up at 1 o’clock, and group members did what they’ve done every week since 2003. They gathered the books and papers, tucking them away in the cabinet. They tidied up the table. And when people headed to the elevators, they left the conference room exactly as it was when they arrived.
“We’re really like a family,’’ said Janet Kampf, putting on her coat. “I feel it’s an honor that we can keep coming.”
The conference room is permanently reserved Thursdays at noon, this year and every year, said law firm president Clark Opdahl. Staff meetings running late must relocate.
It’s a tribute to a remarkable man, but also a way to add a touch of humanity to a profession often involved in strife, said attorney Alan Eidsness.
“We’re in a business that often deals with conflict and struggle,’’ said Eidsness. “Bill was a larger-than-life personality. He had the ability to bring people together.’’
Spilker called the arrangement “an incredible act of generosity” and a tradition that links two communities that otherwise may never meet.
“I think this is a unique thing,” Opdahl said. “And it’s been going on 14 years after Bill’s death. These people were part of Bill’s life. We were part of Bill’s professional family.”