Since 1980, the Florence Melton School of Jewish Learning has reached more than 35,000 people through its international network of community-based schools. But even more than educating its students, the program transforms them, according to Cantor Barry Kanarek, Melton director at the Rockland Jewish Federation and Foundation in West Nyack. “Melton learning leaves an impact,” he said.
He’s the cantor of the Nanuet Hebrew Center of New Center; he’s also been with the federation since 2012, as its education director as well as its director of Life & Legacy.
Cantor Kanarek, who clearly is enthusiastic about the Melton program, said that Melton learning is “not just Jewish learning but transformative learning,” using texts to connect students to the past, the present, and the future; opening their eyes to the diversity of the Jewish people through its pluralistic nature; and encouraging them always to ask questions.
“Melton has a methodology where you’re looking at a text with a chavruta” — a study partner — “and that text can range from something biblical to something modern in nature. It’s pluralistic, not trying to be one stream.” And the study is deep, “pulling it apart and getting to the core of Jewish thought.” Teachers must be certified by Melton and take training in the school’s methodology. “We bring them in from the community — rabbis, teachers, and scholars,” Cantor Kanarek said
This year, the Rockland Jewish Federation is taking a new approach to its Melton program. “We’ve offered the Melton core course for a number of years,” Cantor Kanarek said, and generally it has been well-attended. This year, however, fewer students enrolled in the program. There are a number of possible reasons for that change, he said; it’s possible that everyone who wanted to take the course already took it. It’s also possible that given how tightly scheduled our lives are, there simply is not enough time to do everything we’d like to do.
So this year, Cantor Kanarek said, “We wanted to do something different, to see if this would whet people’s appetites.” So in place of the core courses that it’s offered until now, and instead of positioning the Scholars curriculum as a follow-up to those courses, the federation is offering four Melton Scholars courses. They are shorter than the core course, which demands three hours a week for two semesters. The new courses will include only 10 sessions and will have no prerequisites. They’re set to begin on February 12 and 13.
Building on Melton’s core curriculum — the four text-based courses integrate Jewish philosophy, ritual, ethics, literature, theology, and contemporary Jewish life —the Scholars curriculum focuses on a deeper examination of Jewish texts, exploring topics from medical ethics to Jewish humor.
“Melton offers all kinds of Scholars courses,” said Cantor Kanarek. “We left it up to our teachers” to decide what to teach. “Four came back and said existing Melton courses resonated with them.” Two said they would prefer to teach other material. All four Scholars courses will be offered at the Rockland Federation, at 450 W. Nyack Rd. Two will be taught on Wednesdays, the other two on Thursdays.
The first, Jewish Medical Ethics: A 21st Century Discussion, taught by Leslie Goldress from a curriculum written by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, will begin on February 12 and end on April 29. Ms. Goldress, a frequent teacher for the Federation’s Melton and Midreshet programs, has been a Jewish educator for more than 40 years and holds a graduate degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary; for more than 20 years she was the educational director at the New City Jewish Center. The course, from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., will explore Jewish approaches to a number of 21st century ethical issues, including human cloning, surrogate motherhood, genetic identity, assisted suicide, and genetic manipulation.
A second Scholars course, The Star and the Crescent: A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations, also will begin on February 12 and run from 11:15 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. It will be taught by longtime Jewish educator Sharon Halper, who worked first as an informal youth educator and as a Reform congregational educator and later as a Melton Adult Mini-School teacher and director. The course will explore what Jews and Muslims have in common as well as sources of tension and conflict between them.
The third course, beginning Thursday, February 13, and running through April 30, is Jewish Mysticism: Tracing the History of Kabbalah. It will be offered from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and will be taught by Rabbi Brian Leiken, the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in New City and a frequent Melton instructor. According to the course description, it will “provide a deep, accurate, and intellectually honest understanding of the historical backdrop that led to the birth of an esoteric Jewish tradition….While grounded in scholarship, each class will include discussions that address the timeless mysteries of human existence and many of life’s eternal, universal questions.”
The fourth Melton Scholars course, Social Justice: The Heart of Judaism in Theory and Practice — beginning on February 13 at 11:15 a.m. — will be taught by Rabbi Ariel Russo, who had led CSI Nyack since 2014. In addition to ordination, Rabbi Russo holds a master’s of Jewish education and a certificate in pastoral care and counseling from JTS. Her 10-lesson course will explore historical and contemporary examples of Jewish commitment to social justice through the lens of Jewish teachings. Topics include poverty, immigration, and environmental degradation.
Two more courses will be offered under the federation’s Midreshet adult education program. On Wednesdays, from 11:15 to 12:30, Rabbi Reuben Modek, the spiritual director of Hebrew Learning Circles and the Makom HaLev Community in Nyack — will teach Ba’al Shem Tov Stories: A Gateway to Jewish Wisdom. The course is in English and will be 50 percent reading and 50 percent discussion.
Thursday’s Midreshet course, also from 11:15 — 12:30, is called A Jewish Spiritual Journey: The Search for Oneness. It will be taught by Rabbi Dr. Jill Hackell, who received her M.D. degree from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, practiced pediatrics for several years, later received ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion, and now is the rabbi at the West Clarkstown Jewish Center. Using the book “Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Contemporary Jewish Theology” by Rabbi Arthur Green, as well as other readings, the course will encourage participants to “struggle together as a community to find a language within Judaism that helps us on our own spiritual journeys.”
For more information about the upcoming Melton Scholar’s program at the Rockland Jewish Federation and Foundation, call Cantor Barry Kanarek at (845) 362-4200, ext. 170, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.