For a long time, adult education was the unwanted orphan in a Jewish world whose other children all were far, far above average.
The hardy grown-ups who believed that their Jewish educations had been inadequate, or who knew enough to thirst for more, were relegated to children’s chairs after hours in Hebrew school classrooms, their knees grazing their chins, or had to gather what shards of wisdom they could amid the crumbs as they chomped on bagels and oddly aerated cream cheese on Sunday mornings.
The default approach to adult students was that they knew nothing; no matter how educated and successful they might have been in the outside world, when they entered an adult education classroom they were expected to deposit their brains in the little cubbies near the door.
Not surprisingly, many Jews’ understanding of Judaism and Jewishness was filtered through the lens of a 13-year-old, because that’s when they dropped out of Jewish education.
But things are different now. There seems to be something inherent to Jews that demands that we learn. Right here in northern New Jersey, there is a clear resurgence of Jewish education for smart adults.
The Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem is a haven where gifted educators teach rabbis and laypeople, where pluralism and respect dominate, where scholars come from across the Jewish world, where ideas are pursued and disagreements allowed for the sake of heaven.
Its stunning building fits around a courtyard with a tent-like roof, allowing the bedraggled clichÃ© of the “big tent” actually to make sense, this one time, although no one there would be dÃ©classÃ© enough to use it.
Hartman recognizes another problem in the Jewish world, the gulf that is growing between Israel and the diaspora.
Increasingly, younger Jews simply do not pay much attention to Israel. It no longer seizes their hearts. Other Jews increasingly are off-put by what they hear, read, and see – some of it inaccurate, some of it not – about Israel.
The old narratives – the refuge from the Shoah, the weak little state menaced by all-powerful enemies – no longer work, although certainly some of the dangers are as real as ever.
To deal with this problem, to stop the separation before it becomes a divorce, the Hartman Institute has devised a richly ambitious program that includes curricula, DVDs of talks by some of its gifted teachers, written material, and access to scholars, which it is making available to North American Jewish communities. The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, working with Hartman, is providing this material to local shuls.
On Nov. 1, Hartman’s president, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, who once was scholar-in-residence at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly and has maintained strong local ties, will speak at the JCC. (There is more detailed information about the program beginning on page 20.)
This program, called iEngage, deals with many problems all at once. For one thing, it is adult education that respects the adults it sets out to educate. It is light years away from Hebrew school classrooms and bagel brunches.
For another, it tackles the problem of North Americans’ perceptions of Israel head-on. Yes, there is a growing disconnect between American Jews and the Jewish state, even if it is harder to spot in this community than elsewhere. It should be addressed.
And it also presents an extraordinary model of diversity and pluralism, and of the benefits of strong relationships between different kinds of Jewish-world organizations.
The federation is spending money on the program, and is offering it to shuls free of charge. Rabbis from across the spectrum use it, modifying it as it fits their shuls’ interests, demographics, and logistics.
iEngage joins the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, which is beginning a new semester, as another way to approach Jews who yearn to learn, discuss, analyze, debate, and grow, both as Jews and as people. We encourage our readers to take advantage of the opportunities they offer.
There are many opportunities for people to get involved in iEngage. To learn more about Hartman, go to its website, www.iengage.org.il. To find out about iEngage, including local programs, go to bit.ly/iEngageNJ.