Adult Jewish Learning

An examination of the renewed interest in adult Jewish learning.

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The following article is reprinted from the November 2000 issue of Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.

"Three years ago, I began a journey. I began to draw more and seek more from Judaism, ...my journey was filled with important questions and challenges. Two struck me: What made my home a Jewish home? What distinguished the sacred from the profane in my Jewish life? I felt I had no good answers, so I kept searching. I took a class on the Haggadah, and I joined a Jewish women's study group. I found myself growing, changing, and embracing all of the new perspectives I gained. More questions, more challenges. Me'ah is the next logical step in my journey. I am intrigued and excited by its potential for learning, for community, for challenge, and for growth. I hope this journey never ends. And I am thrilled that my children are watching and participating in the joyful evolution of my fuller Jewish identity." ‑-Me'ah student 

Lifelong Jewish learning has been a core value of Judaism since Ezra mandated the public reading of the Torah. Batei midrash (houses of study) were established so adults could use their "leisure time" to fulfill the mitzvah of Talmud Torah. In America, adult learning became a central programmatic component of both synagogues and Jewish centers (like New York's 92nd Street Y). In 1940, the United Synagogue of America established the National Academy for Adult Jewish Studies to "encourage and promote adult learning both formal and informal in the synagogue and in the general Jewish community."jewish education

So what is the rage today? Why is there an undeniable sense that we are in a unique moment, a renaissance of Jewish learning? Why are synagogues, religious movements, JCCs, foundations, and--most surprisingly of all, perhaps--federations, gearing up to sustain this momentum for adult Jewish study?

There are several reasons for this renewal--some psychological, others technological, contextual, and sociological. I would like to suggest that today's adults are engaging in Jewish learning not only in greater numbers but also in greater depth. Previous generations studied in order to "know how," today they want to know "why." Going beyond remedying their deficiencies, today's Jews seek meaning and connection to their lives from texts and teachers. Today's baby boomers, in their midlife search for respite from the grind, are looking for answers. They strive to excel in all areas of life, even as Jewish parents and role models for their children.

Technological advances--from new translations to the Internet--have made it possible for anyone to study even the most esoteric texts any time, anywhere. "Are you ready to receive Torah?” is no longer the question Moshe Rabbeinu [the traditional term “Moses our teacher”] asks at Sinai, but what Palm Pilot owners ask each other.

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Carolyn Keller

Carolyn Keller is Head of School at MetroWest Jewish Day School in Boston, MA.