Rabbi Steven Sirbu isn’t sure why the adult education course at Teaneck’s Temple Emeth is called a "mini-university." But, he said, his congregants are fiercely attached to that name and "classes have been offered on Tuesday evenings since the Bronze Age."
Rabbi Steven Sirbu
"The idea was to offer two courses in one evening with a break in the middle," he said. "By limiting each class to 60 minutes, you need to keep a certain pace, to stay focused," he added, noting that the format requires structured discussions, unlike longer, one-topic educational programs.
Attendees are a diverse group, he said, but tend to be empty-nesters. "They include Reform Jews and more traditional Jews, those who speak Hebrew and those who don’t, some who come to everything at shul, and those who come only on Tuesday night."
Emeth’s mini-university program began under the late Rabbi Emeritus Louis J. Sigel. According to Sirbu, Sigel’s "most famous" extended session was a 1′-year period spent reading through the entire Bible. "It’s a legendary part of his legacy," he said.
Sirbu, who has been with the congregation for five years, noted that the first hour of each seven-week session features guest speakers, often volunteer laypeople. The second hour, he said, generally offers "whatever the rabbi wants to teach." Among other topics, he has taught an introduction to the Talmud, as well as Prophets and Kings.
The rabbi said he has tried to tweak the program somewhat, dividing courses into small segments. Unlike a real university, he said, "there is no ‘buddy’ to take notes, so if someone misses a session or two, they may drop out."
"Most adult education programs offer topics in shorter pieces or in three-session units," he said, adding that he would like to inch closer to that model and is moving toward that goal by offering a seven-week unit in the fall during the first hour, and, in the second hour, a three-week unit followed by a four-week unit.
While course offerings are varied, Sirbu said the most popular course, "Literature from a Jewish Perspective" led by congregant Dione Danis twice a year "has the single most devoted student body of any adult course. For some," he said, her class is their only adult education involvement in the synagogue."
"We focus on Jewish culture," said Danis, whose course is now in its eighth year. "Last term we read Nathan Englander, and this semester we’ll be tackling Isaac Bashevis Singer. We run the gamut," she said, "from Israeli stories to Woody Allen."
Students in the class read short stories, novels, and essays during the class and discuss them. Danis provides printed materials beforehand, and even assigns readings over the summer. This semester’s seven-week course began on Tuesday.
"Some of the students in the class have been here since the beginning," said Danis, who taught English in Tenafly High School for 30 years. A longtime resident of Teaneck, she now lives in Fort Lee. She said she came up with the curriculum after attending many courses offered by Sigel.
"They were about religious topics, but there was not enough joy," she said. "In our Tuesday night class we have a lot of fun, a marvelous time. We look at Jewish writers who write about Jewish culture, and how it has evolved and changed over the centuries."
"What is special about this adult education course at Temple Emeth is our dedication to fine literature written by Jewish authors who apply Jewish cultural values in their writings. We are equally dedicated to robust discussions and analysis by class members," she writes in the blurb used to describe the course. "We look at literature, short stories, or novels, as intelligent readers and discerning Jews who revere our cultural heritage and celebrate its moral teachings."
Other courses offered this year through the shul’s mini-university include "The Genesis Of Justice," a seminar-style class on law and morality led by congregant Frederick Binder; "What do our Rabbis Say?," a survey of Reform responsa by led by Sirbu and Rabbi Robin Nafshi of MetroWest JCC; "Sibling Rivalry," exploring problems among streams of Judaism, led by the synagogue’s Cantor Ellen Tilem; and "One Heart, Two Homes," on the relationship of American Reform Jews to Israel, led by Sirbu.
For more information about the mini-university program, call (’01) 833-13”. Courses are free for members, with a nominal fee for nonmembers.