A husband and wife team, both Harvard University scholars, are hoping that a new adult education Jewish studies program in the Greater Toronto Area will help build bridges between the academy and the Jewish community.
Hindy Najman, a professor of ancient Judaism at the University of Toronto, is the co-dean of the Maimonides Schools for Jewish Learning in the GTA and Hamilton, along with her husband, Paul Franks, also a U of T professor in the Jewish studies program.
Inspired by the success of similar programs in other North American cities, including Boston and Chicago, Najman and Franks thought that the Toronto Jewish community would benefit from a new Jewish studies program.
“The program really focuses on the whole history of Judaism, from Jewish thought to Jewish history to Jewish interpretation, and it is intended to raise the bar of Jewish education throughout the city,” Najman said.
The school is hoping to cater to professionals and teachers who are seeking a master’s degree that may be useful in Jewish education or communal service, as well as those who simply want to enrol in courses to deepen their Jewish knowledge.
To obtain a master’s degree a student must complete 10 courses that consist of 10 weekly sessions. To be accepted into the program, a student must have a bachelor’s degree that a school like York University or U of T would recognize, and two letters of recommendation from teachers, rabbis, employers, or colleagues.
“There is a lot of desire and interest. We want teachers to have an opportunity to keep learning and that is exactly what happenes at Hebrew College in Boston. It is filled with high school teachers and it’s filled with lay people. Many of the teachers are from Brandeis [University], or from Harvard or from Boston University, which is great,” Najman said.
“We’ve had a lot of inquiries from people who just want to get a master’s, not because they want to teach, and not because they want to go on to do doctoral work… but because they’re goal-oriented. This is Toronto – they are high-powered, they’re really interested, they’re very intelligent, they’re well educated and they’d like to acquire a master’s.”
The school, which is established and chartered as an institute of higher learning in Ontario, has attracted faculty from some of the best institutions in Canada, including Harry Fox and Robert Gibbs from U of T, Sam Ajzenstat and Alan Mendelson from McMaster University, and Isaac Hollander from York.
“There are courses in Jewish thought, ancient Judaism, in modern Hebrew prose, in medieval polemics, the conversation between Christianity and Judaism and Islam, as well as courses… on the development of Jewish thought and interpretation,” Najman said.
“The idea is to have as broad of a stretch both methodologically and textually, depending on people’s interests and background.”
Najman added that this brand of Jewish education won’t be tied to any denomination or particular community.
“This is not Torah in Motion, and this is not Mekorot (the Institute of Torah Study for Women)… Those are excellent programs for the community, [but] we’re not in competition with them,” she said.
“It is not focused on the Orthodox community, it is not focused on the Conservative community. The faculty is deliberately variegated. They are from different parts of the Jewish community, so we are open to have students of all different levels and all different interests and to help locate them in the program.”
Najman said the administrators plan to poll students about what interests them so they can mould the program into what the students want.
“We’re going to offer a wide variety of courses. There isn’t going to be repetition, unless there is a demand for it.”
She added that she hopes the professors will teach the same course on several levels – introductory, intermediate and advanced – depending on the students’ expectations.
“What we want to do right now is figure out what the needs are of the Toronto Jewish community. That is our goal. And to try to address those needs and co-ordinate the demand with our product, what we’re able to give students,” she said.
Najman expects that most of her clientele will be Hebrew day school parents, so as their children grow in a Jewish learning environment, so will they.
“It’s a way of enhancing family life, not just personal development. The entire family unit will grow through these courses,” she said.
“This is about a relationship with the community… What we’d like to see is a growing relationship between the academy and the community… It’s about a regular and natural relationship with the university.”
Classes begin Jan. 21 and will be held at four different locations: The Wolfond Centre for Jewish Campus Life, the B’nai Brith Building on Hove Street, the Yeshiva of Hamilton, and Associated Hebrew School on Atkinson Avenue.
For a master’s degree, each course will cost $375. For non-degree students, each course costs $175.
The registrar of the school, Norman Smith, will be accepting applications until mid-January.