The thing about Jewish education is that most of the adult American Jewish world, other than the Orthodox part of it, doesn’t know very much about Judaism.
Afterschool Hebrew school is a grim slog for many kids, and has been for many decades, despite the hard work and dedication of many gifted Jewish educators. It’s very often a dispiriting challenge. And often Jewish adult education is an uninspiring, context-free meander through Jewish history’s greatest hits.
But somehow — not infrequently — surprisingly often — adults realize that they want to learn more. That they want to know more. That there is a hole in their lives — perhaps even in their souls — that can be filled with Jewish knowledge. That they want to fill with Jewish knowledge. That they yearn to fill with Jewish knowledge.
Many of those adults have found their way to the Melton program.
The Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning “forms an international network of community-based schools offering adults the opportunity to acquire Jewish literacy in an open, trans-denominational, intellectually stimulating learning environment,” according to its website. It’s been taught locally, in both Rockland and Bergen counties, for many years.
But recently, its local branches have closed. Although its students are passionate and committed, most of them already have been through the program. They’ve completed the two years, and some also have completed a follow-up program, Midreshet. The plan was to wait until a new crop of students was ready.
The Jewish Federation & Foundation of Rockland County held out for a long time. The only academic year it missed was 2018-2019 — but its leaders think that it might be time to try again now. It’s planning to restart the Melton program, but to do it slightly differently this time.
Roberta Seitzman of Nyack has been the federation’s director of adult education twice, and attempted to retire from that positon twice, most recently last month. It was Melton that engaged her, and she administered it for years; now she’s overseen its latest reincarnation in Rockland.
She’s done it out of passion. “Melton changed my life,” Ms. Seitzman said; she is perhaps the prototypical Melton student.
She had a job that had nothing to do with Melton, or with the Jewish world, or with education, when she first heard about the program. She’d been working as the director of a catalogue company’s call center. “My daughter Andrea, who lived in Florida at the time, would call me every week and say ‘I am in this fabulous program, called Melton, that you would love,’” Ms. Seitzman said.
By then, she was ready for it. She’d grown up in the Bronx, proudly Jewish but also proudly secular; the most Jewish learning she’d gotten was at the 92nd Y in Manhattan, when she took classes in Israeli dance. (Her teacher was Ted Berk, who was very widely known and respected in Israeli dance circles; like most other people she knew, Ms. Seitzman adored him.) When she married and moved to Rockland, the young family joined a Conservative synagogue, Congregation Sons of Israel of Nyack. “I really wanted my kids to have more than I did,” she said. “I knew something was missing for me.” So when her own shul offered Melton, she enrolled. And she found meaning and mission there.
“It filled so many gaps for me in terms of my Judaism,” she said. She’d been an active synagogue member when her daughters were young, but after they became bat mitzvah her attention to the shul had withered. “It brought me back,” she said. She became president of CSI’s sisterhood, and because she’d been a buyer she began to use her skills to stock the sisterhood’s Judaica store. Then, in 2004, she was asked to join Melton’s advisory board.
Because the questions she asked on the board came from her business background — a background most of the other board members did not have — and because the program was looking for a new director, she was offered the job. Because she had no background in Jewish studies other than what she’d gotten from Melton, she took on the job’s administrative aspects; Rabbi Aryeh Meir of Teaneck handled the educational part of it.
Times changed, finances changed, the federation changed, and soon the Melton program ended. In 2011, it resumed, and once again Ms. Seitzman, who thought that she’d been offering to help run it until someone who could take the job permanently could be found, instead found herself working for the federation, overseeing its education department, until last month, when she finally — she thinks — retired.
Meanwhile, Melton is coming back.
The federation has changed its relationship to the program, which it now is calling Melton Direct. “We no longer pay a franchise fee,” Ms. Seitzman said. “The students sign on directly with Melton.”
The federation’s savings will be passed on to its students. “You used to get 30 weeks of Melton for $800,” she said. “Now it’s $500 for the course, and $60 for books.” The federation still picks its own teachers, but Melton pays them. “The only thing that has changed is the financial structure,” Ms. Seitzman said. Rockland has to provide 15 students; in the spring, it also will offer the Melton Scholars program, for people who already have finished the more basic course.
There is one other change, she said. Melton used to be offered at night; now the classes will be during the day. “People just aren’t that interested in going out at night any more,” she said. She assumes that most of the students will be retirees, but she hopes not all of them will be; she’d love to welcome younger people, perhaps stay-at-home parents or work-at-home-with adjustable-schedules adults, to the class. Rabbis Paula Mack Drill and Brian Leiken are slated to teach.
(The federation offers two free classes, “Taste of Melton.” The second of those two will be on August 15. See box for more information.)
Meanwhile, her love of Jewish learning continues, even as her formal work in the federation’s Jewish education department ends. The federation threw her a retirement celebration, “and they asked me what I wanted for a gift,” she said. “I said I want life-long learning. I want to be able to keep taking classes, and have them not charge me for it.” So that’s her present — the chance to keep on learning.
The federation’s CEO, Gary Siepser, said that Melton will run again because “we think there is demand. And beyond that, it is a reflection of our real commitment to Jewish learning and Jewish identity. This is one of the ways to act on those values and that commitment.”
Melton is aimed “at any adult who is interested in continuing their Jewish journey and Jewish learning,” he said. “It is aimed at people who are interested in making a real commitment of time and energy and money and learning more about Jewish life, Jewish history, Jewish culture — Jewish everything.
“Melton works for people of all kinds of backgrounds,” he continued. “Each class is pretty well self-contained, so somebody who has not taken classes before will fit right in and find themselves able to participate.” But it is not only for people with little Jewish background. “People who have had many years of Jewish education will also love it,” he said.
Who: Rabbi Paula Mack Drill of the Orangetown Jewish Center
What: Will teach a free introductory introductory class, called “Taste of Melton”
Where: At the second-floor Jewish Federation suite at the Jewish Community Campus, 450 W. Nyack Rd., West Nyack
When: On. Thursday, August 15, at 10 a.m.