JTS adds context to synagogue life

JTS adds context to synagogue life

With the success of the Me’ah educational program in Boston, the city’s Hebrew College agreed to export the intensive adult Jewish learning program to other areas, says Moshe Margolin, tapped by the college to bring the initiative to the greater New York area.

“I’m usually asked to start new projects,” said Margolin, who has worked in the field of Jewish education for some 30 years and was then working with Hebrew College.

“Me’ah started in Boston in 1994 as a joint program of Hebrew College and Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ Commission on Jewish Learning and Engagement,” explained the educator, now senior director of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Institute for Jewish Learning.

Intending to run the New York area program independently, he soon decided that he needed a partner. Approached by JTS – which had created an institute “to promote and raise the bar of adult Jewish learning throughout North America” – he ultimately brought the program to the Conservative school, which has relaunched the venture under the name Context.

Describing it as “the flagship program of the institute,” Margolin called the two-year educational project “an intellectual journey that provides you with a sophisticated understanding of Jewish history and thought.”

“We started our operation this academic year with five new classes, most in New York but one in New Jersey and one in Washington, D.C.,” he said. Next year, four Bergen County synagogues will participate in the project.

According to Margolin, Rabbi Ronald Roth, religious leader of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel, expressed an early interest in bringing the program to his congregation.

“I heard about it a year or so ago,” said Roth, who approached JTS after receiving an e-mail announcing the program. When it was agreed that the FLJC would be the main sponsor of a Bergen County program, Roth recruited the town’s Temple Beth Sholom, the Glen Rock Jewish Center, and the Jewish Community Center of Paramus to participate as well.

The rabbi said he is hopeful of drawing the 22 students needed for a viable class and pointed out that participants don’t have to be affiliated with these synagogues to take the course.

Noting that some in the community may already have taken classes through the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School program, he said, “This is another opportunity. Melton is wonderful but different, and this gives another option. It’s taught by academics and goes into more depth.”

According to Margolin, Context provides “a way to understand the Jewish past, define your own approach to contemporary Jewish life, and develop a unique and informed outlook toward the Jewish future.”

Divided into four semesters of eight academic sessions each, the program examines two broad areas of study: Jewish texts and interpretation, looking at the Bible and rabbinic texts; and Jewish cultures and communities, including Jews in the medieval world and the post-Enlightenment world.

Faculty members, all university-level scholars and teachers, are experts in their fields and hail from a variety of religious and secular academic institutions, said Margolin, pointing out that they will also reflect diverse points of view.

“You can’t tell a university professor how to teach a Bible course,” he said. “Each professor will bring in his or her speciality,” such as biblical archeology.

“I know there’s a great desire for adult Jewish education,” said Roth, pointing out that his own synagogue, as well as those co-sponsoring the project, have active adult education programs.

“Many people didn’t have [Jewish education] growing up,” he added, “or there may be day school graduates who have forgotten [the material]. Dealing with some of these issues as an adult is different from learning them in Hebrew school. I thank Melton for showing us that there is an interest and a need.”

“The Jewish world is going through so many changes,” he said. “We need to know what the Enlightenment was all about to figure out all our different movements, here and in Israel. We need the context to have an appreciation of it.”

Roth said the Bergen County program will kick off next fall, beginning at the FLJC and then circulating among the other three shuls. Tuition is $795 per year. Some scholarship aid may be available.

“It seems that there is a need and desire for people to learn on a more serious level than is available for synagogue programs, and this is an extraordinary opportunity for them to do so,” said Roth. “And it’s an opportunity to learn with great teachers.”

An information/introductory session will be held June 21 at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center.

“It’s open to everyone in the community who wants to come to do studying and learn about the program,” said Margolin.

For more information, call (212) 870-5850.

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