Harman Grossman of Teaneck recently retired from a career that can fairly be described as impressive.
He grew up in Brooklyn, where he graduated from the Yeshiva of Flatbush. Then he went to Princeton — “with a semester at Hebrew University thrown in” — and then to law school at Harvard. Next, he clerked for a federal judge, Robert Carter, in the Southern District of New York. “He was a giant of the civil rights movement,” Mr. Grossman said. “He and Thurgood Marshall argued Brown v. the Board of Ed,” the seminal case that ended school segregation.
Next, after seven years at a law firm, Mr. Grossman went in-house at Johnson & Johnson, “where I did complex commercial and intellectual property litigation for 30 years.”
Then he retired from the law — but not from work. Not even almost.
“I was formulating a glide path toward becoming a Jewish educator,” he said. “I got a master’s in Jewish education online from the Jewish Theological Seminary. I took one course per semester, while I was practicing law. It took, I don’t know, maybe seven years to complete.”
That’s where Melton comes in.
Melton — formally the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning — is a New York- and Jerusalem-based pluralistic program with the mission, according to its website, of engaging “learners in the life-enhancing study of Jewish texts and ideas. Our accessible approach promotes open dialogue and nurtures a deepening of Jewish community.”
About 15 years ago, Renah Rabinowitz, who then was Melton’s administrator for northern New Jersey, asked Mr. Grossman if he’d like to become a Melton educator. “She’d seen me teach some courses at our shul,” Congregation Beth Sholom, he said. Given that “I have a passion for Jewish education,” the answer was clear.
This year, like every year for the last 15 years, Mr. Grossman will teach Melton courses. “I have taught Jewish ethics, the Jewish calendar, mysticism, some history courses, some Bible courses. In the fall, I’ll teach a course in Jewish medical ethics.”
In a first, he’ll also teach a course that isn’t for Melton — it’ll be an in-person class for seniors at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange this fall. “This is the cohort of students who will spend the spring semester in Israel,” he said. “The class is about current issues in Israeli society.”
Now, Mr. Grossman has become the first Melton teacher to join the organization’s board.
“The thing about Melton is that it combines four things that I care about a lot,” Mr. Grossman said. “It is text-based. It is intellectually rigorous and intellectually honest. It is pluralistic. And it is interactive.”
Since the pandemic, many Melton courses went from in-person to online, but even the on-line classes are interactive, Mr. Grossman said. “These are not classes where somebody talks at you for 45 minutes. They’re the opposite of frontal.”
Melton offers courses for people trying to reconnect with the Jewishness that is theirs by birthright but to which they’d been only occasionally exposed, and it is open to everyone, but it goes far beyond that.
The students come from a wide range of backgrounds. “They vary from location to location, and from course to course,” he said. “There is a track of introductory classes. And it’s really so interesting. You take people who are really sophisticated and intellectually nimble, and just haven’t had the advantage of a strong Jewish background, and you introduce them to Jewish texts — there are wonderful fireworks.
“I find that people who are new to the tradition ask questions that just don’t occur to people who are raised within the tradition.”
Before covid, all Melton classes were in person; during covid, of course, they all were online. Now, Melton offers some of both.
“The traditional Melton educational model was that the curricula are all set at Hebrew University. The materials are delivered to the teachers around the world and taught in classrooms, and each teacher retains the autonomy to decide which texts to use and how to present them.
“The newer type of Melton education is where the teachers put together the curriculum.” Those classes are taught by people who know a lot about a subject, care deeply about it, and want to teach it. That doesn’t inherently mandate that a class should be online rather than in person — but those classes tend to be of more niche interest, so it’s better for students, teachers, and the Melton program that students can be drawn from a wider geographical area.
“Melton’s emphatically not connected to any stream of Judaism,” Mr. Grossman said. “It’s connected to Hebrew University, which also isn’t connected to any stream. It’s pluralistic. If you look at a Melton lesson about the Bible, for example, you find material from all streams of Judaism, and from secular people — scholars, authors, artists — who have encountered the text and thought deeply about it.”
Melton classes don’t get too big; interactivity remains a goal. “I’ve taught a class that’s bigger than a 20-person Zoom screen, but not the 49-box screen,” Mr. Grossman said. Zoom classes are recorded, so students can play them back, although the interactivity is gone.
Whether classes are in person or online, connections between the people in them remain. “The way I got to the board was that one of my students in a class was on the board and she recommended me,” Mr. Grossman said.
“I say ‘one of my students’ advisedly. In many of these classes, you encounter people with whom you don’t have a student/teacher relationship. It’s peer to peer.”
This student, he added, was a retired judge — and then he hastened to add that you don’t have to be a judge, retired or not, to take, learn from, and love a Melton class.
On the board, “I’d like to focus on new formats to deliver Melton education,” Mr. Grossman said.
There’s another part of the Melton program that he doesn’t know much about, Mr. Grossman said, but he’s looking forward to learning more. It’s “Jewish text-based travel to all these cool locations. They’re both the kinds of places you’d think we’d go to — Israel, Greece, eastern Europe — but also the places you wouldn’t think of, like Charleston, South Carolina.
“I’m not the best person to talk to about this yet, but I have seen these programs from afar— and I’ve salivated.”
Learn more about Melton’s programs at meltonschool.org.