‘0 Years of Changing Lives

‘0 Years of Changing Lives

 The JLE celebrates its birthday

Twenty years ago this fall, three men from Teaneck put an ad in the Jewish Standard announcing a class for people who have "ever wondered what the high holiday services are all about."

The ad for the "Jewish Learning Experience" promised to answer for participants any questions about the High Holy Days or anything else about Jews and Judaism. "The cost of admission," it said, "is only your desire to expand your Jewish knowledge and experience."

Organizers Sam Kaplan, Jeff Glazer, and Aaron Mandelbaum booked a room at the Torah Academy, then on North and Elm Streets in Teaneck, set up 15 chairs around a table, bought refreshments, and hoped someone would show up on Sept. 1′, 1985.

At 8 p.m. that Thursday, people began arriving in droves, sending Kaplan, Glazer, and Mandelbaum in and out with more chairs for the overflow audience of around 50. "I hoped it would work, but I didn’t think it would," recalls the JLE’s teacher that evening, Rabbi Michael Taubes, now a high school principal at Mesivta of North Jersey in Newark and the rabbi of Zichron Mordecai in Teaneck. "I didn’t think there were enough people looking for this kind of knowledge and education."

On Saturday, December 3, the Jewish Learning Experience will celebrate ‘0 years of existence with a gala dinner at the Jewish Center of Teaneck, honoring some of the program’s supporters and early alumni. Over the course of two decades, JLE has served more than 4,000 people and still continues to draw more than 350 participants to its holiday services in Teaneck and Englewood, and many more to its full roster of weekly classes. Funded mostly by donations and some support from the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, its classes and programs meet in donated space throughout Teaneck and Englewood, and virtually every Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck counts JLE graduates among its members.

Giving back

JLE founders wanted to give back to the community what they felt others had given them because their own Jewish connections had not always been strong. Kaplan came up with the idea of providing a free Jewish education in a non-intimidating environment to Judaically undereducated adults. Their mission was to reconnect unaffiliated Jews with their heritage.

"We met with local rabbis to discuss the concept," Kaplan said. "I knew Rabbi Taubes already and he agreed to teach the first class. After the first one was so successful, we started holding it every three weeks."

A class on the weekly Torah portion was added next. Then Kaplan started holding Shabbatonim on Friday night and Saturday morning at his house, along with beginning Hebrew classes and special programs for Shabbat. Most of these were led by volunteers.

"We went from a class every three weeks in the beginning to classes every night," said Mandelbaum, who is still active in JLE, as are his co-founders. "We had no idea what to expect in the beginning; we just knew we wanted to offer a Jewish education in a warm, supportive atmosphere to those who might not have been able to get it. We approached it from both an intellectual and an emotional standpoint."

Glazer concurred. "I liked the idea of helping others grow and develop, to bring them back into something they had disconnected from. We have one man from New York City with practically no Jewish background who came to our classes and is now president of his shul. Now that’s making a difference."

A non-intimidating environment

JLE hangs its success on its ability to create a warm and supportive atmosphere. Participants in classes were encouraged to ask any questions they wanted; leaders were sensitive to people’s need to find their own way back to Judaism. Hebrew classes were led by patient teachers who had learned the language, in many cases, as adults themselves. No concern was ignored or belittled.

"Obviously something about the program hit a nerve and has led to our growth and success," said JLE director Rabbi Baruch Price. "Most of the people who come are unaffiliated with any synagogue. They are searching for something, questioning, and we make sure they feel comfortable as they’re on this search."

The JLE has become a community for many of these people. Not only do they get to know each other in the classes, but participants are also regularly invited to the homes of observant families so that they can experience how Shabbat and holidays are celebrated at home.

"Everyone was totally non-judgmental," says Jonnie Sofer, who regularly attended lunches at people’s homes after Saturday prayer services. "I saw how beautiful family life is, how supportive they were of other Jews." Sofer regularly drives more than 100 miles from her home in northern Duchess County, N.Y., to attend classes and programs. She often stays overnight with local families and is making plans to move to Teaneck.

Chana Weissler of Teaneck, who frequently hosts JLE participants, especially liked the idea of reconnecting people with their rich heritage. "It’s absolutely heartwarming to see how many people were thirsty for knowledge about who they are." The informal setting of the home, she said, helps people build lasting relationships.

Henry Rutland of Fort Lee came back to Judaism when he met his wife-to-be. Together they attended JLE classes and services. They have also gone on several JLE trips to Israel, a program that Rabbi Price started. "It was the most incredible experience," Rutland said of the Israel experience. "It tied everything together. I have to credit Rabbi Price with providing this extremely powerful experience. To be at the [Western] Wall on a Friday evening is an indescribable thing."

The trips include visits to children’s homes as well as visits to places of importance on the timeline of Jewish history. "These trips show that Judaism isn’t just a system of rituals but a way of helping fellow human beings," said Rabbi Price.