Consortium ensures revival of education program

Consortium ensures revival of education program

Richard Michaelson, Allyn Michaelson, instructor Bette Birnbaum, and Roz Melzer examine an ancient Israelite coin in a 2007 Melton class.

Melton is one of those incredible programs,” said Frieda Huberman, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s director of school services and of the Florence Melton Mini-School. “It’s more than the sum of its parts.”

Clearly, that view is shared by others. When the two-year adult education program was scaled back this past year because of cuts in funding, a group of graduates banded together to launch what has proved to be a successful rescue effort.

“It came out of the minds and hearts of Melton alumni,” said Huberman. “They wanted it to continue.”

The Melton loyalists – spurred by Sharon Weiss, a member of Wyckoff’s Temple Beth Rishon – created a network of synagogue liaisons to reach out to their respective shuls, seeking financial support for the program. Thanks to their efforts, a consortium of some 20 synagogues and two JCCs has joined with UJA-NNJ to fund the program for the foreseeable future.

An educator herself, Weiss said, “I know great teachers and great curricula when I see them. I was taking a Melton class last spring when I heard the program was in jeopardy. I was concerned mainly because the program had such a strong impact on me and I was afraid that this wouldn’t be available for other lifelong learners.”

Weiss, with several other Melton graduates hailing from Beth Rishon, Temple Israel in Ridgewood, and Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, met with then Melton director Rena Rabinowitz “to get a sense of what our options were.”

“We felt strongly that we should give it a try,” she said. “We felt it was unconscionable not to make an attempt to see what we could do.”

Armed with a list of graduates, together with information about their synagogues, the group conceived the idea of a consortium, asking Melton graduates to arrange meetings between synagogue leaders and those pitching the consortium plan.

“We created a PowerPoint presentation and budget and set up appointments with heads of synagogues,” said Weiss. “The liaisons had a strong influence, talking about the impact the program had on them. It worked out fabulously. We now have enough financial support to offer the program.”

Weiss said the consortium is still a work in progress and she expects that more synagogues will “come aboard.” She said she is not worried about attracting students, since there is already a waiting list.

“I felt very passionate about it because of how it changed my life,” said the retired high school biology teacher. “It helped me understand my place on the Jewish continuum. I was brought up as a cultural Jew but with no understanding and appreciation of the shoulders on which I stand.”

“I have a responsibility,” she said. “I never understood that. I’ve found my Jewish voice,” she added, noting that not only did Melton inspire her to visit Israel but it empowered her to take leadership positions within her synagogue.

Helping to restore the Melton program entailed “full-time involvement,” she said, but it has been worth it. “Not only will we get learners, but we’ll get people who can become leaders.”

“I’m one of many,” she pointed out. “We couldn’t have gotten [so many] liaisons unless people cared.”

Melton graduate Susan Lieberskind, one of the graduates who helped create the consortium, said that once she realized the key to teaching her children to love Judaism lay in her own actions, “Melton became a ‘requirement.'”

Still, added the Hillsdale resident, “participating in adult Jewish education so that my children see that learning is a lifelong endeavor is only part of why I signed up for Melton. Being Jewish is an integral part of my life and I wanted to know the ‘why’ behind the various things I do.”

“Individual synagogue classes are great, [but] Melton provides a sophisticated, pluralistic curriculum and an opportunity to learn with a broader base of community members,” she said. “It makes new meaning of previous Jewish experiences and increases a student’s connection to the Jewish community, creating role models and leaders.”

Lieberskind noted that her Melton education has not only provided her with a better Jewish foundation but has given her “confidence to pursue leadership opportunities in the Jewish community.” One of her classmates recently completed a term as synagogue president, she said, while “a member of my original class went on to be UJA-NNJ president. There is no question that the presence of Melton students makes for a better community.”

According to UJA-NNJ’s Huberman, there will be three Melton 1 classes in Fall 2010, to be held at the Glen Rock Jewish Center, Temple Emanu-El in Closter, and Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake. Students will attend two hours a week for 30 weeks. As regards instructors, she said, the program will draw on “the phenomenal Melton teachers who taught in the past.”

Calling UJA-NNJ the “anchor” of the program – which she expects to attract between 100 and 200 students – she pointed out that federation is providing staffing for the program as well as serving a fiduciary role.

“The details are still evolving,” she said, adding that the fall program will include one Melton 2 class as well as post-Melton graduate classes. The program will be open to the community.

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