In the years following the Holocaust, Jewish scholarship has reached unprecedented levels. Jewish culture has expanded geometrically.
A new Jewish state has risen from the ashes of the crematoria, against the tide of history, and has become a beacon of democracy in a region of oligarchies and dictatorships. In many parts of the Jewish world, a religious revival is underway. The aim of Nazi Germany was to blot out the Jews from the world and then to destroy even the memory of them. We are here – they are long gone.
And yet there is another side to this story. Scholarship may be thriving, but for the average Jew, knowledge of Judaism seems to be declining at a rapid pace. Too many people have little or no real understanding of what Judaism is or what being Jewish is all about.
In some segments of our society, Judaism is seen as a mere religion, to be practiced through ritual, not observed in everyday life. In others, it is seen as an anachronism, a relic of an ancient past that has little to say to modern Jews.
Adult Jewish education, such as it is, does little to educate the masses of lay Jews. Sure, rabbis try to offer short courses on the weekly portion or some other topic, but the comprehensive learning program is intimidating and time-consuming,
That is what makes the text-based, Hebrew University-generated Florence Melton Adult Jewish Mini-School such a rare exception. In 120 hours spread over two years, 30 weeks a year, participants in the Melton program receive a concentrated survey in Jewish philosophy, ritual, history, and values. For over 20 years, people at all levels have found that there is always more to learn, and Melton continues to provide them with those tools as well, through post-Melton mini-courses, a new semester of which began this week.
More important, from a community standpoint, the Melton program creates an educated and committed lay leadership, whether at the synagogue level, or at the federation and organizational levels. Former Melton students are actively engaged leaders, committed to the future of their community.
Efforts to supplant the program, or replace it with less intensive, less expensive alternatives, crop up every now and then, and it is understandable but not wise. No program has had the success rate of Melton, by any measure. Friendships are made that cross the streams. Learning is a shared experience and even the instructors learn from their students. One early group of Melton students has been together for nearly 20 years. Another, some of whose members have been studying for the last 13, have turned into an extended family, socializing together, supporting each other, and studying together.
Melton is not just another program. It is a door to a brighter Jewish future, and a more educated and committed Jewish laity from which we all can benefit.
We urge more synagogues to affiliate with the Melton Consortium, and we congratulate the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey for its continued support. May Melton continue to serve us well for years to come.