Falling in love with Jewish learning

Falling in love with Jewish learning

Lewis Paer, Marty and Ruth Kornheiser, and Mindy Goldfischer all are Melton graduates.

Jews stereotypically have a thirst for learning. Sometimes, stereotypes are true. The Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning acknowledges that truth.

The program, which is set to start its 26th year in northern New Jersey this week, offers a thorough and wide-ranging look at Jewish texts and philosophy.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you probably think. Another adult education program. So what’s new and different about this one?

To begin with, Melton – which is sponsored by a consortium led by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and including all three area JCCs and at least 19 local congregations – has a curriculum created by experts, based on research and feedback. “It’s developed by scholar/educators at the Hebrew University,” according to its local director, Frieda Hershman Huberman.

The curriculum also keeps changing, as times, interests, and understandings change.

Melton is pluralistic, and its students represent a wide range of the community. “They’re in their 20s through their 70s,” Huberman said. “Some have had no formal Jewish education; we have two students now who graduated day school in grade 12. And we have everything in between; a heterogeneous mix of backgrounds, stages of life, life experience, levels of observance and Jewish literacy. And we have skilled teachers. All contribute to Melton’s vitality. It’s the interaction of the three elements that contribute to the Melton mix.”

Melton classes meet once a week; this year, students are offered the choice of two evening classes, one in Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck and one in Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, and a daytime class in Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake. The program lasts for two years – the text-driven courses in the first year explore the “Rhythms” and “Purposes” of Jewish life; in the second, it is the history-focused “Dramas” and the issue-oriented “Ethics of Jewish Life” – although students commit to just one year at a time. Students often fall so deeply in love with Melton’s intellectual opportunities and spiritual adventurousness that they demand to continue once it has ended. That’s why there are formal post-Melton classes. Several are being offered this year, including such subjects as the Israel-Arab conflict, the development of denominations in American Judaism, and the biblical book of Exodus. Some informal post-Melton classes have been known to get together for years; there, participants’ sense of connection to each other and to the larger Jewish community continues to develop along with their more formal understanding of Jewish theology, history, and philosophy.

Classes always unfold depending on the delicate chemistry between teachers and students, which is why each class is different, even as the curriculum remains the same. “Students unpack a theme, whether it is chosenness, holiday, or life cycle events, human suffering, miracles, or organ donation,” to list just a few of many, Huberman said. The class always includes a biblical or rabbinic text, and “explores the topic through the lens of Jewish text, from ancient to modern, including talmudic, sometimes liturgical, sometimes medieval, and always contemporary texts.” The point of view includes “Reform to Orthodox, and everything in between,” she said.

Melton can transform its students, Huberman said, citing a former student who went from feeling uncomfortable whenever she went to shul to sitting on that shul’s board. Another, who studied in Melton 20 years ago when it was still a program of the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, went on to become president of her synagogue at a time of great change for the shul.

“People who already were leaders felt it made them better leaders,” she said. “It prompts people to become more connected in their own way. Some become more observant, some take more trips to Israel, or see it through a different lens once they’re there. Many decide to send their children to a Jewish school or camp, or to become involved with federation. We had a group of people who had never volunteered for Super Sunday work here last year. They said that through their studies they came to realize the value of community.”

Melton classes are taught in about 50 communities across the English-speaking Jewish world, not only in North America but also in London, Hong Kong, Sydney and Melbourne in Australia, and Capetown and Johannesburg in South Africa.

“Northern New Jersey was among the first Melton programs to open,” Judy Kapchan, Melton’s international director, said. “They were forward-thinking and serious about adult Jewish study 26 years ago,” when the program opened first at the JCCOTP, before it grew big enough to move to the federation and its affiliates.

Kapchan, whose office is in suburban Chicago, has an overview of Melton and is impressed by what she sees here.

“The northern New Jersey community is very vibrant and dynamic,” she said. “People are very involved and passionate about Jewish learning. Because you’re so close to the center of Jewish life in New York, you have a lot of incredible teachers. That’s always the reason why Melton thrives or doesn’t thrive – its teachers.

“The teachers’ reaction across the board is always that it’s really a privilege to teach there. No one teaches at Melton full time. There is no such thing. It’s an hour or two, once a week, and I hear from teachers that it’s often their favorite time of the week.

“You are connecting with other adults, who want to be there and who are very motivated to learn. They are engaged, and they take it really seriously. What a gift it is to be able to teach people like that!”

The teachers also enjoy preparing for each class, including drawing up roadmaps to help students navigate through each lesson, and introducing outside readings when they seem appropriate to enhance learning for any particular group of students.

That is one of the reasons for Melton’s success, Kapchan said. Its curricula developers and its teachers treat its students with the assumption that they have working brains. “Our students are prepared to ask questions,” she added. “Some people just want simple answers, simple recipes – that is not our Melton students. That is not what we do. It is not who we are. We are about an encounter with text. With ideas. With meaning.”

JFNNJ’s Huberman said that registration traditionally remains open for several weeks after classes begin, and more students always are welcome in those early weeks. Neither time nor money should rule out potential students. The classes run for two one-hour sessions, with a 15-minute break in between. “Some people who consider Melton are apprehensive about making the time commitment, but once they enroll they can’t figure out how they ever lived without Melton,” Huberman said. And money? “We have generous scholarships and payment plans,” she said.

Her conclusion?

“Melton is a transformational program,” Huberman said. “It’s not just that it’s my portfolio – I really believe in it. It is a gem.”

For information about the Melton program, including about scholarships, or to enroll, call Frieda Huberman at 201-820-3913 or go to www.jfnnj.org and click through for details at the bottom right of the federation’s home page.

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