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A college for grown-ups

JCC University gears up for third semester

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Buddy Tell asks a question after a talk at the JCC University. Courtesy JCCOTP

Bergen County residents no longer have to travel to New York for high-quality educational programs, says Kathy Graff, director of new initiatives at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly and coordinator of the JCC University.

“We’ve got the same quality programs and we’re more convenient,” Graff said, announcing the third semester of what she calls “a college for grown-ups.”

“When you go to college, you don’t have a context for learning,” she said, explaining that most people who go to the JCC’s educational venture are recent retirees, “trying to figure out what to do with their second act.

“We provide a way to keep learning at a time when you’re ready to receive it,” she said. “Hopefully, we’re giving [attendees] new ideas and filling their time in a productive way.”

Graff said that the project, created by JCC program director Carol Leslie, includes six sessions, each featuring two presentations. The spring semester drew about 70 participants.

“Many people who attended previous sessions are returning with friends,” Graff said, noting that the winter semester – six consecutive Thursdays from February 28 to March 21 – will include presentations ranging from “Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman: Relevant Then, Relevant Now” to “Emerging Microbial Diseases and Their Likely Paths.”

Past sessions also have explored diverse topics, from counterterrorism to the changing face of communications.

The program, open to JCC members and nonmembers, has brought in students from towns throughout Bergen County.

“We’re getting people from all over, even Rockland County,” Graff said. “We’re pleased that they are traveling for this.” In addition, she said, the program has attracted equal numbers of men and women.

Graff said she has a lot of help in planning programs, working with a task force of eight active JCC members.

“We try to present a wide variety of topics and seek out top professors and experts in their fields,” she said. “We have conversations about interesting topics and we search to find the best people to do the presentations. We’re constantly looking at what’s out there, what’s new, and the hot topics of the day.”

Graff said that what sets the JCC University apart is that “attendees not only hear high-quality presentations but have an opportunity to meet like-minded people and form a community. We have a population of adults who are really interested in learning new things and hearing different perspectives. This lets them stay involved in what’s going on and continue to learn.”

JCC member Buddy Tell of Cresskill, a member of the JCC University task force, credited Graff with bringing in exciting ideas but noted that the planning group is not run in a “dictatorial” manner.

“We want to bring people in who are topical and particularly interesting as well as people who can introduce a bit of controversy,” he said, noting that if task force members don’t think someone is the right choice, they’ll let Graff know.

“We may say no, that won’t fly,” Tell said, noting that the people on the task force represent exactly the population Graff is aiming to reach. “If you don’t have people that stimulate you, you’re not coming back.

“Adults, basically retired people, need stimulation during the course of the week,” he continued. “You don’t want to go running to New York. You can get it here, and be part of this community.”

He noted that the question-and-answer session that follows each presentation is particularly interesting.

“We don’t have dummies,” he said. “People really get with it. They get up and argue with the presenters. We always go overtime.”

The presenters enjoy that as well, Graff said.

“Presenters love our audience,” she said. “They get so much back. They’re eager to come again.”

She said that the task force tries to put together a balanced program, including both hot-button issues and offerings in theater, music, and art.

Noting the high quality of presenters, she said that “we haven’t had any duds – we’re lucky like that. We’re not bringing in people whose hobby is the topic and they like to talk about it. We’re bringing in top experts. We want credentials.”

Graff said she’s learned that the people attending her program “really like politics. So we try to have an element of that. We also know that sometimes people think something might not be interesting to them but then they try it and find out that it is. So we may go the unconventional route.

“Our success encourages us to try new things.”

For more information about the JCC University, call Kathy Graff at (201) 408-1454.

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