JERUSALEM – It is no small task to provide fresh, accurate, and engaging adult-education material for 5,500 “wondering Jews” taking weekly classes at 49 Florence Melton Adult Mini-School locations in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and now Hong Kong. The challenge is even greater because the Melton approach is trans-denominational.
That is the job of the small crew working under Yonatan Mirvis, director of Melton’s international headquarters at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the world’s largest academic center for Jewish education.
According to Mirvis, who has a Ph.D. in adult education, the focus of the curriculum is the teachers. If they find the material compelling, they will convey it in a compelling manner.
“The genius of the Melton approach is that it gives us the ability to prepare courses for a teacher to make exciting for a student,” says Mirvis. “In the field of education, this is unique, as far as I know. This is the only curriculum-driven type of adult course not for professional development or credit. There are no evaluations or exams.”
Because Melton instructors comprise a diverse group from the standpoint of their religious beliefs and practices, as well as their national and cultural differences, ultimately each is at liberty to use the provided material as he or she sees fit.
“Unlike many other curricula, ours speak to the teacher and rely on the teacher to speak to students,” says Rabbi Morey Schwartz, director of curriculum development. “There are three pillars of our program: it is text-based, interactive, and pluralistic. We expect our teachers to be comfortable teaching texts from perspectives that are not their own. That’s a prerequisite. We have great respect for our teachers and we constantly exchange ideas with them.”
The writers strive to present an even-handed approach to the four categories of classes, which are grouped into the rhythms, purposes, ethics, and dramas of Jewish living. “The material is grounded in biblical and rabbinic texts, and the analyses and contemporary texts take it into multiple directions so everyone finds a place at the table,” says Schwartz.
“Our articulated goal is basic Jewish cultural literacy. We are committed to exposing the students to 120 lessons on 120 topics of Jewish life and living, to give them a sense of comfort to enter into the great Jewish conversation. And we also hope to light a flame of love of lifelong learning, awe, and excitement about what it means to engage in Jewish studies.”
After two years of Melton courses, students “know what they don’t know and feel a thirst to learn,” adds Mirvis. “They are not looking for expertise in one area, and as a result they can focus on what areas they would like to pursue afterward. That’s what our graduate courses are for.”
The South Africa-born Mirvis has been with the Melton Centre for Jewish Education since 1991, five years after Florence Melton launched three pilot sites in North America. In 1990, the program was officially founded at Hebrew University and evolved into a franchise system, with Mirvis as CEO of the Florence Melton Corp. in Columbus, Ohio.
Schwartz arrived in 2002, having made aliyah from Kansas City two years earlier, to direct curriculum development and to begin developing an advanced curriculum for Melton graduates. At that point, the original core curriculum needed revision.
“I came to the conclusion that, based on need and budget and manpower, we should revisit one of the four courses every three to four years,” he explains. This involves updating both the student reader and the faculty guide. “That means it takes 12 to 15 years before any one curriculum is completely revised.”
However, Melton’s online library contains constantly updated alternate texts and supplementary materials, as well as a faculty idea exchange. “The process is very dynamic,” says Schwartz. “Changes are basically faculty generated. I ask them to offer me suggestions and critiques, and we work hard to create an environment where there is a sense of sharing.”
For example, the Ethics of Jewish Living course was last revised in 2006, and recently a student e-mailed Schwartz to suggest that some of the topics and sources are outdated. “She’s right, and we try to bring new material to the attention of our faculty.”
Freelance researchers and writers who are experts in their fields “have the benefit of the expertise of our [Hebrew University] faculty and excellent library, and of course the Internet,” says Schwartz. “In our latest revisions, some of our most updated sources are off the Internet.”
The Melton program has expanded to include a Hebrew version, the Gandel Institute, funded by the Avi Chai Foundation. Some 530 students are enrolled in 33 classes all over Israel. About a third of them are Russian-speaking.
If money were available, Mirvis would develop a Russian-language version of the curriculum, and perhaps Spanish and French, as well. “We’ve had requests to run this in Argentina and Mexico,” he says.
Schwartz would like to create a parallel online version of the curriculum in order to reach more people. “We are also getting into the area of an e-book version of our basic curriculum, which will be more accessible to those who prefer their readers to be in digital version. Once you get into that world, the potential for linking to text and videos is limitless.”