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Many ways to learn

Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey reboots its adult ed program

We don’t know much yet about the findings of the soon-to-be-released survey by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, but there is one nugget that already has been made public.

Jewish adults hunger to know more. Their desire for Jewish learning continues to grow. Jewish educators and leaders know that to be true intuitively, and that understanding is borne out in the proliferation of programs and institutes around the area.

Until recently, the federation has fed that hunger with its Melton program. For years now, the Florence Melton program has brought its two-year, pluralistic, in-depth lessons to synagogue classrooms across the region. But nothing lasts forever, and the Melton program has now ended locally – as it has, in fact, in many of the other places that once hosted it.

“In the fall of 2012, into the spring of 2013, we did an assessment to find out what federation’s role should be in education,” Lisa Harris Glass, the managing director for community planning and impact for the federation, said. As a result of that assessment, “we went out of almost every business we were in – synagogue-based religious schools, Jewish early childhood programs – and we entered into new ones. The mandate was for us to be a central address for adult Jewish learning.”

What happened to Melton? “It’s an incredible, world-class, high-level program, and we were one of its first sites, but in recent years the classes were getting smaller and smaller,” she said. “We really gave it our best shot, but we couldn’t get enough people.”

Part of it, she said, was so-called “brand fatigue.” The program had been around for some time; it was no longer seen as fresh or exciting; moreover, most of the people who wanted to take it already had. But there was something else, she said. “The price and the amount of time were high barriers.”

The Melton program is 30 weeks a year for two years; because its materials have to be bought and the name licensed, and of course the teachers have to be paid, the cost is commensurately high.

In the end, those barriers were insurmountable. The last group of local Melton students graduated from the program in June.

But the decision to shutter Melton did not mean that the federation was giving up on adult education. Instead, a task force came up with the idea of what it is calling CoNNectJ.

“It came up with the idea of having a theme for the year, and starting with a big event,” Ms. Glass said. The unifying theme is based on another successful federation program, One Book, One Community; there, everyone reads the same book (this year it’s Helene Wecker’s “The Golem and the Jinni”), communities choose their own activities based on it, and everyone comes together at the end for one big book-centric bash.

CoNNectJ’s theme is “An Affair of the Heart: Intimate Relationships and God.” The opening meeting, a four-way discussion of King David, will take one look at the theme, and the classes planned for the year will do the same. (For information about the opening evening, see the box on page 7.)

“We wanted to make the program intellectually and educationally accessible,” Ms. Glass said. “You don’t have to be a Talmud scholar to go to this class. It is something that has a wide appeal to a wide range of people. We know that we as a federation have to be a central convenor – that we have to bring all our people together. It’s not just for niche groups. Just like One Book, One Community, this is a program that gets Jews from all denominations, including Just Jewish.”

On the other hand, she said, it will not “be dumbed down.” The first event will focus on the story of King David, as told in the books of Samuel, “but they will not teach you the story of David and Samuel. It’s not kitah aleph” – it’s not a first-grade class. “There is a low barrier to entry, but that doesn’t mean that the class isn’t taught at a high level.”

“It’s also about the location,” Stephanie Hausner added. Ms. Hausner is the manager of the federation’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative. “These classes are not being taught in synagogues, but in coffee shops, in yogurt places, in libraries, in common areas in condos, at the Ikea café in Paramus. We also don’t want location to be a barrier to entry.”

“We know that our catchment area is large,” Ms. Glass said. “You have to live here to understand the quirks and foibles. People don’t want to cross Route 17 or Route 4 to get to a class. We are committed to great geographic diversity.” People can stay in their own quadrants. And it’s not just for the towns clustered in the most Jewishly dense parts of the area, either. “We’re in Ramsey,” she said. “We’re in Wayne. We’re in Clifton.”

Bess Adler, the principal of the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies in Paramus, will “teach a lunchtime class at Hummus Elite,” a restaurant in Englewood, Ms. Hausner said.

“We are planning to run some classes during the summer, as a way to allow snowbirds to connect with us,” she continued. “We try to time them so people can take them before they go to Florida.”

“From a programming point of view, the community goes dormant during the summer,” Ms. Glass added. “I think that’s a missed opportunity.”

Although only the first batch of classes has been set so far, it includes Down with My Deity?: An Exploration of the Presence and Absence of God in our Daily Lives, Same-Sex Marriage: A Jewish Take; and It’s Crowded in Here: The Role of God in Human Relationships. The list includes text-based courses, workshops, and discussions. The relationship of some of the courses to the theme is clear; to get others, you might have to squint a bit, but each has something.

“This is about making Jewish education relevant to your everyday life,” Ms. Glass said. “When you are trying to build a positive Jewish identity, you have to be personally relevant. You can do that with people who are 9 years old and with people who are 90.” Our texts are deep enough to offer that connection to everyone, at all stages, she said.

Classes will be held at different times – some during the day and some in the evening. Each will be just a few sessions – the number of sessions is up to the instructor.

Another part of the federation’s push is to refocus some energy on people long past childhood. “When we talk about education in general, very often it’s about children and teens, but there is a mandate for adult Jewish learning,” Ms. Glass said. “And if you look at the demographics of northern New Jersey, you see that we’re older; 55 and older is a huge segment for us.

“We need to be engaging that demographic. People are moving within northern New Jersey, or coming here from elsewhere. Many of them are people who have not yet connected to the Jewish community. They have the time, though, and so we have an opportunity to engage them, and make them feel as if they’re part of the Jewish community.”

Roberta Abrams Paer of Montvale, a longtime federation board member and its vice president of planning and allocations, is also a longtime Melton student, and she was on the committee that created CoNNectJ.

She loved Melton, she said. She found the study challenging and fulfilling, “but one of the parts that I liked best was its interdenominational aspect,” she said. “It didn’t come from any particular stream of Judaism, and it was respectful of all the streams. It helped you understand why someone might think differently than you do. The teachers did an excellent job of unbiased teaching.

“We took the best part of that unbiased teaching and cross-denominational inclusiveness” into the new program.

“I think it gives people a great opportunity to dip their toes in – or put their whole leg in, or even their whole body,” she said. “It’s good for every Jew in our community. Everyone can go. They don’t have to be affiliated with this temple or that temple – or any temple at all. Federation is partnering with temples and the YJCC and the JCC in Tenafly, and everyone is stronger for it.

“I’m very hopeful,” she concluded. “I am very optimistic. We are always striving to do the best we can and to provide services. We have to listen to our members and our constituents. We have to listen to our community.

“And we have.”

Information
CoNNectJ

Who: Rabbi Noah Fabricant, Rabbi David Fine, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, and Rabbi Debra Orenstein

What: Will be on the panel discussing “An Affair of the Heart: King David and His Intimate Relationships”

When: On Thursday, October 30, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: At the Bergen County YJCC, 605 Pascack Road, Washington Township

Why: As the kickoff for CoNNectJ, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s new adult Jewish learning program. This inaugural year’s theme: “An Affair of the Heart: Intimate Relationships and God”

RSVP: To Sarah David at or (201) 820-3902

For more information: www.jfnnj.org/connectj

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