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The new face of adult Jewish education

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You can’t miss that it’s back-to-school season, from the omnipresent stacks of crayons and glue sticks for sale, to the quiet, relieved sighs of parents everywhere. But while children and teens have no choice except to head off to class, increasingly, adults are also choosing to continue – or start – their Jewish learning.

Adult Jewish education has tended to fly under the radar, eclipsed by the drama of tuition crises and declining enrolments. There’s pent-up demand for adult learning, but too often it’s not taken as seriously as it should be, says Rabbi Avi Finegold, the founder of Montreal’s Jewish Learning Lab, who has spent a lot of time thinking about what adults want – and what they deserve.

Too often, adult Jewish education consists of classes that are “an ad hoc collection of what the rabbi has taught before and whatever visiting scholars the education director is able to find,” Rabbi Finegold writes on the Jewish Learning Lab’s website. Teachers need a curriculum “that takes the learner on a directed path of learning, rather than an unconnected series of lectures.”

Jewish education for adults isn’t simply teaching as much of Pirke Avot as you can until the end of the year and then moving on to another subject, he says. “It makes sense that people don’t end up gravitating toward the material, because it’s just content, as opposed to (a teacher) saying, ‘I’m trying to recognize that lifelong learning can have a meaningful impact on a person’s life.’ ”

The vast majority of people who attend evangelical churches are involved in Bible study, while in synagogues, only about five or 10 per cent participate in adult Jewish learning, Rabbi Finegold says. It’s a number he would like to see flipped.

“Intellectual discovery is just as important in my mind as worship,” he says. “Lifelong learners are among the most fulfilled Jews out there.”

The Jewish Learning Lab and other institutions are experimenting with how to reach time-strapped adults who still want to dive deep into Jewish sources. One class that Rabbi Finegold taught, called Beer and Bible, met in a bar, but despite the setting, the content was far from “fluffy,” he says. This year, for example, they studied the theologically complex Book of Job.

That series tended to attract a younger crowd, but Jake Burack, 59, a professor at McGill University, is a frequent attendee, as well. “It’s an enticing package,” he says, noting that Rabbi Finegold “is traditional but with a twist.… He’s Orthodox, but he’s willing to challenge ideas and be thoughtful.”

The Jewish Learning Lab’s offerings are typical of the direction adult Jewish education is heading – it offers what Rabbi Finegold calls a “buffet” of activities, from more traditional learning that attracts retirees, to drop-in classes like the Beer and Bible series. It also breaks down denominational silos with teachers and students coming from a wide range of backgrounds and philosophies.

The best example of this educational smorgasbord is Limmud, a one-day festival that celebrates Jewish learning in all its facets. An international movement, Limmud currently runs yearly events in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Toronto, as well as a special program for Jews from the former Soviet Union.

“We see this as a moment of renaissance for Jewish learning,” says Rabbi David Singer, the newly appointed director of Limmud North America. “Jews are yearning for connection and meaning. We provide the space for everyone to come together, in spite of their differences.”

Limmud revels in the idea that its big-tent approach attracts Jews who may do no other Jewish learning during the year, and hopes to whet their appetite for more. At last year’s Toronto Limmud, for example, there were programs on Jewish sustainable beekeeping, “recovering queer Jewish history” and a session led by an Orthodox rabbi on what biblical texts say about divorce.

READ: YOUNG ADULTS GAIN JEWISH LEARNING OPTION IN LISHMA

The majority of Jewish adults stopped their education after having their bar or bat mitzvahs, and often feel intimidated because of their lack of knowledge, Rabbi Singer says. Limmud aims to “create spaces where people don’t feel guilty for what they don’t know, but a celebration of what they want to know,” he says.

Because Limmud events are local, grassroots affairs, organizers are able to extend the learning beyond a single day, Rabbi Singer says.

In Winnipeg, for instance, which is celebrating its 10th year of Limmud, the community is planning on holding 10 events during the year, including Shabbat dinners and partnering with synagogues to offer sessions and smaller Limmud-style events around Hanukkah and Pesach, said Limmud co-ordinator Florencia Katz.

A study session at the Lishma Jewish Learning Project. (Aaron Rotenberg photo)

A similar spirit infuses the Lishma Jewish Learning Project, a one-year-old program in Toronto that is supported by a number of different Jewish organizations, including a Conservative synagogue, a Reform temple, an unaffiliated synagogue and a Jewish community centre.

Aimed at people in their 20s and 30s, Lishma offers three short courses per semester, focusing on text study, modern issues and a hands-on class that explores the arts. Classes are small – capped at about 15 participants – and depending on the semester, are held at different venues, including synagogues and office spaces in midtown and downtown Toronto, says Yakov Fruchter, director of spiritual engagement and community-building at Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation.

There’s an emphasis on “niche learning,” focusing on what learners say they want to study, as well as on creating community. All the classes, which run simultaneously, stop halfway through the evening to allow participants to meet each other and enjoy a social moment.

The notion of creating “safe spaces” is also key to the program. The online registration form includes a consent form that states: “I understand that Lishma aims to be a learning community that is safe, respectful, pluralistic and welcoming of community members with diverse identities and perspectives.”

The focus on a younger demographic is also intentional. “People in the older demographic tend to be more willing to go to traditional spaces to learn. We need to say to 20s and 30s that we believe Jewish learning is a priority,” Fruchter says. “Part of the excitement is that they are going to be with other young people.”

With a year under its belt, the Lishma experiment is seeing repeat learners and demonstrating that there is a demand for this type of collaborative teaching, Fruchter says.

Bailey Fox, a 27-year-old articling student, attended Lishma’s first year and is returning for a text-based class on Rosh Hashanah this month.

“Lishma is a very unique learning opportunity. I’m not sure where I would go to get the same experience that Lishma offers,” she says.

She enjoyed studying with young adults who came from a wide variety of backgrounds, and exploring Jewish sources in different contexts.

“I really appreciate the pluralism aspect that crossed different levels of observance and parts of the Jewish community,” she says. “It’s important for me, in my Jewish identity, to recognize there’s more than one way of being Jewish.”

But adult education does not need to be edgy, or focus on millennials, or even be in a big city to be stimulating. It is likely, however, to be pluralistic.

In London, Ont., which has about 2,600 Jews according to the last census, volunteers have been running a weekly speakers program for 15 years. From Rosh Hashanah to Pesach, between 20 and 23 speakers, usually authors and professors, come and lecture, says Gail Silverman-Bass, the chair of the program, which is called Jewish Educational Manna, Food for the Wandering Jew.

The program is a partnership between the Reform and Conservative synagogues and the JCC.

Every spring, a committee decides on the following year’s program. “We devised an acronym, PATHS, for philosophy, art, text, history and skills of Jewish learning. We try to have each of our talks fit one of those descriptions. We have never run out of topics or speakers,” Silverman-Bass says.

The talks are free and the topics diverse. Last year, the subjects included sexual misconduct in the Bible, the 1918 liberation of Haifa by the Indian Army Lancers and a celebration of composer Leonard Bernstein. With no advance reading and no tests, the lectures attract about 45 people weekly, mainly retirees.

“Sometimes, we get topics that are esoteric,” says Silverman-Bass, “We’re not looking to pump up the numbers, we’re looking for material we can all learn from.”

But getting busy adults into a weekly class can be challenging and educators have been experimenting with alternative ways to reach students.

Rabbi Finegold produces a couple of podcasts, including one with veteran broadcaster Tommy Schnurmacher, and another with the Jewish Public Library.

Online teaching is an untapped frontier, but there have been some early successes, he says, pointing to renowned Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt, who teaches Zohar via web conferencing technology and has several hundred people in a Facebook group where they discuss the topic.

Still, there’s no substitute for students and teachers sitting down together.

Sandy Brown has been sitting in friends’ living rooms as a student since she and her husband moved to Toronto from New Brunswick 45 years ago. Her study group was originally made up of young married couples and met at Beth Tzedec, but it eventually took off independently and hired its own teachers.

Over the years, the group has studied Jewish philosophy, history, literature and culture. They’ve also become good friends, helping each other through bar mitzvahs, weddings and deaths, Brown says.

“We talk about ‘pediatric Judaism,’ ” when learning stops at around age 13, Brown says. “That’s absolutely the wrong concept. You have to get into it more as you get older.… The more you get into subjects, the more you realize how dense it is. There’s no end to it.”

Shayna Kravetz has also been in people’s living rooms and a wide variety of synagogues for two decades as a teacher, following her career as a lawyer. Her classes are as informal as possible. She makes a point of sitting among her students, not at the head of the table, and stresses that she learns with her students.

But she’s not afraid to dive deep into a topic. One of her study groups spent 10 years working on the Book of Genesis because, after 10 weeks studying the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac), they felt they hadn’t given it enough time, she says.

She’s also comfortable enough in her modern Orthodoxy to teach across denominations. Synagogues may provide a room, but they don’t dictate a philosophical outlook, Kravetz says.

“There’s a kind of purity to learning. We bring our own credentials and biases, but a good teacher has an allegiance to ideas that goes beyond their orientation. You don’t ignore differing voices, you address it.”

Teaching adults, who have invariably chosen to come to class, also has a certain magic to it, she says.

“It’s just a pleasure to see people learn. I can tell someone, ‘You’re bothered by the same thing that bothered Rashi.’ … It makes them feel they’re part of the same historical conversation. That is a wonderful experience. You can see people’s eyes light up.”

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