Just after Michelle Obama’s DNC speech, the Washington Post introduced the world to her speechwriter, Sarah Hurwitz. As one can imagine, this position is demanding and more than full time. In an effort to try and maintain some semblance of a personal life, Hurwitz shared that she takes classes on Judaism and exercises regularly. We all know the benefits of exercise on our body, mind and soul. But do we recognize the impact that Torah study can have on us beyond the acquisition of knowledge?
We see when adults study Judaism that it brings not only life to their Judaism, but meaning to their life. On college campuses, in living rooms, in synagogues, we find adults turning to Torah because the world has gotten overwhelming and Torah is a framework and tradition that helps us make sense, even create a system of faith. The act of study can serve as a transformative experience for some adults, changing the ways that they interact with Jewish community, Jewish life and the world more broadly.
Despite the importance and the potential of the adult learning experience, we have heard that adult education remains the purview of individual agencies—synagogues, JCCs, other community agencies—working primarily as separate, atomized actors to offer specific opportunities to their members. And, we’ve heard that even though new, updated players are on the scene—Kevah and Limmud (see below)—many of our communities are still relying on a narrow field and on traditional modes of adult study.
We propose something new.
“Adults” drive everything. They are the parents and grandparents in our communities, the donors, the agency leaders, the creators and entrepreneurs. Research on teens shows that their most important heroes and role models are their parents. Imagine how the world might change if more of their parents were studying and finding personal meaning in Torah?
Adults should be our most important students. The adult education landscape should be diverse, accessible, tailored to different ages and stages, challenging and meaningful, not driven by lecture but putting Torah into learners’ hands.
We can cultivate the landscape as we do in other areas, catalyzing new opportunities, bringing projects from other communities, stirring up diversity and updating what is available.
Moreover, rather than tolerate independent players and an atomized landscape, we can apply principles of collaboration and synergy to the adult education space, convening the players, helping them to identify common ground and potential synergies, designing opportunities that will together attract more than just the usual suspects.
We imagine Federations taking on a significant joint marketing project, bringing community attention to all of the opportunities together. Or bringing players together to study adult meaning-making, to deepen and strengthen what they offer. Or embarking on a massive campaign to enroll every parent, or every forty-something, or every grandparent in a learning opportunity of their own. It’s a powerful vision, one of a community that becomes driven by Jewish knowledge and informed, animated Jewish commitments.
Below, we highlight several programs and initiatives in adult Jewish learning. A few will be familiar. We share most of them to bring them to your attention and to challenge us to consider, What can we do to expand the offerings for adults today? How can we look at adult Jewish learning in strategic way, with diverse opportunities and models?
Some communities are deeply engaged in this space. In Chicago (spearheaded by Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership) and St. Louis, Federations are convening partners, making the whole better than the sum of its parts. Washington DC has created a new series of adult opportunities in the Jewish Food Experience. In Boston, Combined Jewish Philanthropies has added small group learning to its already rich arena, including the Me'ah program among others.
Some notes, before we proceed:
- “Adult education” can range from traditional text study and classroom sessions to larger scale Jewish festivals focused on music, film, food and everything in between. We’re simply not that diverse here—we focus on text study.
- But we encourage you to think about environmental projects (Hazon, Urban Adamah, Wilderness Torah, your own community’s initiative) and performance projects and film festivals and food experiences as part of this landscape. We hope all of our communities can expand our offerings into this diversity.
- We include both legacy projects and new initiatives.
- The internet is, of course, our biggest classroom. We include some online initiatives—classes and podcasts—below. (We love seeing Federations linking to the virtual world in your weekly messages!)
- We don’t focus on niches—young families, or Millennials.
We begin the conversation with this list of possibilities and the encouragement to facilitate collaboration among providers in your community, bring in new opportunities, and invest in the best of the online frameworks—all of which will make adult Jewish learning more accessible, more meaningful within your community We look forward to continuing this conversation—please be in touch to discuss!
Kevah Groups provide an entirely customized Jewish learning experience. Similar to having a personal trainer or a personal chef, Kevah enables individuals to bring top educators into their homes (or a location of their choice) to study with the people of their own choosing. A Kevah Group is a micro-community with a shared affinity principle (usually based on geographic location, shared interest, demography, or life stage) that gathers weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly for one to two semesters to study Jewish texts in a friendly setting like a home, office, JCC, or synagogue. Every group learns something meaningful to them and groups primarily study classical Jewish texts, including Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, medieval Jewish commentaries, Mussar, Hassidut, and modern Jewish thought. Kevah makes Jewish learning personal, collaborative, and accessible.
An international organization led and organized almost entirely by volunteers, Limmud is a model of learning and inspiration for over 80 communities across the world. Limmud aims to enable every participant to take one step further on his or her Jewish journey regardless of the participants level of Jewish knowledge or background by making accessible some of the world's most dynamic Jewish educators, performers and teachers, working in a variety of educational styles – lectures, workshops, text-study sessions, film, meditation, discussions, exhibits and performance.
Limmud is a fantastic opportunity for learners of all ages—accessible even for young families—and a great way to celebrate any community’s assets and talent in Jewish teaching and leadership. A Federation can support some volunteers to take on Limmud as a project—and provide financial support for its growth—to add this meaningful Jewish experience to its landscape.
Rohr Jewish Learning Institute
Chabad’s adult learning initiative, the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) is currently operating in over 200 communities throughout the globe. It focuses on the essentials of Jewish literacy in a series of six to eight week courses. Every course is accompanied by a student textbook and enhanced by engaging audio-visual presentations. JLI’s environment is open and interactive for students learning at every level. JLI pedagogic experts and scholars have developed a centralized curriculum so that you can attend classes in any location around the world as well as engage in lively conversation with other students and teachers through the internet.
iEngage: The Engaging Israel Project at the Shalom Hartman Institute
The Shalom Hartman Institute iEngage Project offers a series of semester or year-long curricula, able to be used in synagogue and other settings, with facilitators who are skilled at teaching with texts and leading challenging conversations. The curricula allow participants to consider the meaning that Israel can have in their lives and how they can be enriched and positively influenced by the reality of a Jewish state. The curricula emphasize Shalom Hartman key concepts: the nature of Jewish statehood and sovereignty, a vision of Israel that lives up to the highest standard of Jewish values, the nature of morality and democracy, the essence of a covenant of Jews around the world with each other and with Israel. Among other communities, UJA Federation of New York has supported the Shalom Hartman Institute to make the curriculum accessible for a maximum number of synagogues and agencies in their community.
Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP)
The Jewish Women's Renaissance Project seeks to inspire women to transform themselves, their families, their communities, and the world. Their flagship program is MOMentum, an eight-day journey through Israel giving women the opportunity to deeply explore ourselves. Thousands of women from 21 different countries have already experienced this life-changing trip, paying only their own airfare, and returning home with a deep, eternal connection to Israel, a profound kinship with each other, and a heart filled with Jewish values. JWRP works in partnership with a wide spectrum of community organizations, from Jewish outreach centers to Federations. Partners recruit the women, staff the buses and continue the journey through continually evolving follow-up programming that keeps the inspiration going and helps to create bonds that extend not only to communities, but globally. JWRP partners with over 143 agencies worldwide including the Jewish Federations of Cleveland, Omaha, Washington DC and Orlando to name a few.
Florence Melton School of Jewish Learning
The Florence Melton School of Jewish Learning is the largest pluralistic adult Jewish education network in the world, with 47 Melton Schools in 47 cities throughout the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, attended weekly by some 5,500 students. Students enroll in a sequential two-year course developed specifically for adult learners. They meet one day a week throughout the academic year. The only prerequisite is a commitment to learn. Jewish Federations, Jewish Community Centers, Bureaus of Jewish Education and community coalitions are the Hebrew University's partners in the Melton School. The Melton School infuses students with a desire to make Jewish learning a way of life which often continues beyond the first two years into Melton School graduate courses.
DIY JEWISH LEARNING
Me’ah Online (Hebrew College)
A ten-week online learning experience offers the outstanding faculty and comprehensive curriculum that are the hallmarks of the Me'ah program, combined with the flexibility of distance-learning. Me’ah programs are an initiative of Hebrew College and Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Participants register to be part of a cohort of 25 with class lectures led by renowned Bible scholar Marc Brettler. This asynchronous class allows you to learn at your own pace, and at a convenient time and place while at the same time having stimulating discussion with classmates and instructor. Hebrew College offers a myriad of professional development and academic offerings as well as rabbinic ordination.
The Internet as Jewish Classroom
There are literally thousands of websites, blogs and online platforms for adult Jewish learning available. We’ll start with these few, but in our blog posts we always include links to additional resources and will continue to share these resources as we continue our work. MyJewishLearning is the leading trans-denominational website of Jewish information and education. Offering articles and resources on all aspects of Judaism and Jewish life, the site is geared toward adults of all ages and backgrounds, from the casual reader looking for interesting insights, to non-Jews searching for a better understanding of Jewish culture, to experienced learners wishing to delve deeper into specific topic areas. Aish.com's goal is to give every Jew the opportunity to discover his or her heritage in an atmosphere of open inquiry and mutual respect. Jewbelong.com helps you make Judaism your own. It’s filled with easy-to-follow, fun, touching, humorous and always non-intimidating content. Sefaria.org is a free online living library of Jewish texts and their interconnections, in Hebrew and in translation. In addition, many full time Jewish education institutions such as Pardes, Jewish Theological Seminary and Mechon Hadar have made many of their lessons available online.
Through the wonderful world of technology, a ten-minute weekly Torah talk or juicy bits of Judaism can come to your inbox or phone weekly or even daily. The diversity in the subject matter is quite extraordinary as well. You can subscribe to anything from Israel's spin on This American Life to interviews with some Really Interesting Jews. Podcasts give us the opportunity to listen to topics we want to hear when we want to hear them. It’s the ultimate do-it-yourself Jewish learning experience.
For Reflection and Discussion
- Is adult Jewish learning a priority of your Federation? Why or why not? To what extent do you think that strengthening adult Jewish learning is a communal responsibility?
- What does the landscape of adult Jewish learning look like in your community? Who are the providers? What are their goals?
- How can Federation play the role of convener? What other role do you see for Federation in this space?
For Further Exploration