Adult Jewish Learning

An examination of the renewed interest in adult Jewish learning.

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Moreover, the North American Jewish community has "arrived" socio-economically. We are all college educated, comfortable with studying on an advanced academic level. Jewish Studies departments have produced a cadre of scholars who are as adept at critical research as they are at delivering popular lectures. They serve as weekend scholars‑in‑residence and write books that make Jewish texts accessible, without teaching a "watered‑down" Judaism.

In a time of rapid and profound change, we are looking for creative ways to express ourselves and to find meaning amidst an overwhelmingly mundane and materialistic environment It's kosher to study Kabbalah [Jewish mysticism]!

Our interests in learning are varied: the lawyer who looks for legal foundations of Western law in the Talmud; the mother who grapples with the violence in the Torah's stories of sibling rivalry; the soup kitchen volunteer who comes to understand the Jewish mandate for action through her study of texts on gemilut chesed [acts of caring and responsibility] and tikkun olam [healing the world].

Why are some of the vehicles we are using for this journey working so well? In Boston's two‑year Me'ah program (100 hours of Jewish learning), we bring participants into the ageless "Jewish conversation" by exposing them to the core primary texts of Jewish life in the hands of some of the region's outstanding scholars. The UAHC's Kallah at Brandeis University is an immersion opportunity for the movement's leaders to connect authentic study with role models of active, engaged Jews.

Camp Ramah's Family Camps or six‑week LiSh'ma text study programs for young adults create communities of learners, albeit temporarily, that are alternatives to typical urban or suburban settings. Distance learning and the phenomenon of Daf Yomi [daily page of Talmud; insights, explanations and comments from the seven pages of Talmud studied in the course of one week are available each week online] make it possible to set time aside for study corresponding to individual schedules, while uniting Jews worldwide in virtual communities of learners.

Above all, today's seekers need to find meaning in the experience. Both their lives and the traditional texts require explication. Most of today's adult learners start with their experience and use it as a portal, a point of connection, into the world of authentic Jewish textsand ideas.

As Franz Rosenzweig offered in his opening lecture at the Frankfurt Lehrhaus [a new kind of center for adult Jewish education in Germany that aimed to teach marginal, acculturated Jews about Judaism] in 1920, "A new learning is about to be born--rather, it has been born. It is learning in reverse order. A learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way round: from life...back to the Torah... [F]rom the periphery back to the center, from the outside in."

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Carolyn Keller

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