The students in Midreshet Rockland — the adult education program of the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County — number “in the high 60s” this semester, according to Cantor Barry Kanarek, director of adult education for the federation.
Thirty-two of them are studying with Leslie Goldress in her weekly 75-minute class on issues in American Jewish society.
“She’s got quite a following,” Cantor Kanarek said. “She’s a dynamic teacher. A force of nature.”
Ms. Goldress has been with Midreshet Rockland from the beginning, going back years and years. She and her husband, Irwin, have lived in Monsey for nearly 50 years.
For 35 years, Ms. Goldress worked at the New City Jewish Center, where she was educational director; she still teaches at its lunch and learn program a few times a year. Her core students now are the parents of the kids who she taught at the Jewish Center.
Ms. Goldress grew up in White Plains, in a family that didn’t practice much Jewish ritual but were members of Temple Israel, a Conservative congregation there. She learned enough Hebrew in Hebrew school to pass the New York State Regents exam in the language.
As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, she was drawn to Hillel. “I was very much influenced by it, and I became shomer Shabbat and shomer kashrut and the whole thing,” she said.
She wanted to continue exploring Judaism, so after earning a political science degree from the University of Wisconsin she enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan for second undergraduate degree, “a bachelors of religious education.” After three years at JTS as an undergrad, she went on for a masters in Jewish history.
Along the way, she spent the 1966-67 school year in Israel, studying at Hebrew University. Ms. Goldress remembers the sound of Jordan shelling Jerusalem at the beginning of the Six Day War. She returned home soon after the war.
In her years teaching at the Midreshet, she’s taught only a couple of courses twice. “I like to start fresh and create a course,” she said. “I like to learn as I teach. I don’t like to teach anything twice.”
One course she did teach twice was about Jews in remote corners of the world. “We Skyped to Belgrade, Serbia, to speak to the rabbi and rebbetzin in the shul there,” Ms. Goldress said. The Belgrade rebbetzin had been Ms. Goldress’ daughter Jennie’s roommate at JTS, where she too earned an undergraduate degree.
“Another course that was very special was on modern Jewish sects. One of the highlights of that class was we had Rabbah Sarah Hurwitz” — the first woman to be ordained by the Orthodox Yeshivat Maharat — “come to speak to the class.
“I try to make everything much more interactive,” Ms. Goldress said. “That’s the key.”
This semester, with 32 students studying via Zoom, has been challenging.
“I have to deal with all the technical things,” she said. “How do you show clips from Netflix? I’m happier being in a classroom. I love to interact with my students. I’ve probably taught most of the students for 10 years,” she said.
Things that would flow in a classroom, like taking turns reading, have to be choreographed carefully online. “As someone was reading, I’d have to say, ‘Irene, unmute yourself, you’ll start with the next paragraph.’”
“The first week everyone was unmuted. It was incredible. A dog is barking. A couple is talking. This one is picking up their coffee. In the last couple of weeks it’s gotten better, and people have learned to mute and unmute themselves.”
The course she is teaching is issues in American Jewish society. It started with an-depth study of the Netflix series “Unorthodox.” “We’re really concentrating on the religious practices,” she said. “I’m showing clips from the video, and sections from Deborah Feldman’s original book” that the show is based on.
Next up is anti-Semitism. “We have a speaker coming from the ADL.” Also on the syllabus is an examination of BDS, and another unit on American Jews and Israel.
She’s teaching only one class this semester.
“I decided that I need learning for myself,” she said. “I’m taking a course, halacha of the coronavirus, with Lamdeinu in Teaneck. Of course this year it’s on Zoom.”
For the spring semester, which starts in January, she’s thinking of teaching about Jewish medical issues.
Besides teaching, Ms. Goldress is an active volunteer with Rockland Jewish Family Service. “I work with fundraising — I’m working on the virtual heroes brunch on December 6 — and I do all the ordering for the food pantry.” She chairs the Explore and Create program, where students do creative projects with challenged adults. It’s a program she first created at the New City Jewish Center. She’s also on the board of the Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education.
And she works with the Yemeni refugee community in Monsey, as we’ve written about previously in this paper. “I’m an advocate for the families,” she said. “It might mean negotiating a lease, it might mean taking them to an appointment. A majority of the parents don’t speak English, though they’ve been here 12 years. Thank God I can speak Hebrew and many of them speak Hebrew.
“And I babysit for a grandchild. One of my three children lives in the county and had a baby two years ago,” she said. “That’s my Sunday activity.”