Sharing the gift of Jewish education

Sharing the gift of Jewish education

Melton graduates want to ‘give back’

Some experiences arelife-changing. And sometimes, people become so excited about something they’ve done or learned that they can’t wait to share it with others.

So it is with students of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, says Renah Rabinowitz, director of the northern New Jersey Melton school, which meets in area synagogues. She estimates that more than 1,000 students have participated in the local program since its inception in 1989.

Richard Michaelson, Allyn Michaelson, instructor Bette Birnbaum, and Roz Melzer examine an ancient Israelite coin.

While Melton began as a two-year program, almost immediately, "graduates began clamoring for post-Melton classes," said Rabinowitz, noting that students can attend as long as they want. She noted that while the northern New Jersey school will graduate 40 students in June, about ’00 people were enrolled in the program, including the post-Melton students.

Elyse Elisheva Hansford Anderson — shown here with her husband, Mark, and children Sydnee, 9, and Isaiah, 6 — credits Melton with inspiring her to convert to Judaism.

"One of our graduates recently got her master’s degree at the Jewish Theological Seminary," said Rabinowitz, considering ways in which the Melton experience has affected participants. "And some of our students have been motivated to go to Israel for the first time."

In addition, she said, "some [graduates] have assumed leadership positions in their synagogues and in communal organizations such as Hadassah," and others, like Tenafly resident Lisa Beth Meisel — UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s recently honored "Rising Star," who attended the Melton program in Closter — have become active in the federation.

Melton alumnus Robert Heidenberg has given "the gift of Melton" to new students.

While some Melton-related life-changes can only be described as dramatic — Tenafly resident Elyse Elisheva Hansford Anderson said she was inspired by the program to convert to Judaism — a more common reaction is the desire to "give back," said ‘005 graduate Robert Heidenberg, who endowed a Melton class at a Closter synagogue so that others can share what he calls "the magic of Melton." Similarly, to give his fellow congregants a taste of Melton’s educational style, Richard Michaelson helped spark the creation of his Fair Lawn synagogue’s adult education program.

Elyse Elisheva Hansford Anderson began attending Melton after her husband, Mark, learned that his birth mother had been Jewish.

"We decided that learning about Judaism could bring us closer to understanding this lost part of himself," she said, noting that even after she and her husband met his biological mother, they felt something was missing.

"I had seen the Melton ad in The Jewish Standard," said Anderson, "and thought that perhaps this sample class could … help me to sort through the myriad of thoughts and questions I had, pertaining to my husband’s startling discovery of his roots."

Anderson, who was born into a Baptist family and converted to Judaism in January, says she had no idea how important Melton would be in her family’s life.

A congregant now at Englewood’s Kehillat Kesher — the synagogue’s religious leader, Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, was one of the rabbis who officiated at her conversion — Anderson said, "My children and I were forever changed when we converted."

The Tenafly couple have two children, ages 6 and 9, and recently enrolled their son at Ben Porat Yosef in Leonia. "The kids are very comfortable" with the decision, she said.

Calling herself a spiritual person — although, she said, neither she nor her husband had been comfortable with organized religion in the past — Anderson said their affiliation with the Jewish community has been "a perfect fit."

Calling Melton a "comprehensive, authentic academic experience," Anderson praised what she called its pluralistic approach, "treating each student’s religious orientation in a respectful way." She said she would recommend the program to both Jews and non-Jews. Anderson feels that if non-Jews understood what Judaism was truly about, it would dispel their suspicion and discomfort when facing, say, chasidic Jews clad all in black. "It’s in our nature to fear what we don’t understand," she said. "Melton is a jewel," she said, informative without trying to proselytize.

Heidenberg, who lives in Demarest, said that "Judaism has a lot to offer every Jewish person, if they open their eyes and mind to the wide range of Jewish thought and practice."

Calling himself a "religious school dropout," Heidenberg said he thought the class would be fun. The ‘005 graduate added, "You’ve got to put your toe in the water and give it a chance," noting that the more Jewish knowledge he’s acquired, the better he’s felt.

In ‘006, "giving the gift of Melton to others," Heidenberg established the Jerry Fink Memorial Melton class at Temple Emanu-El in Closter — including a deli dinner — in memory of a Melton classmate. "The food’s important," he joked, noting that he was pleased to "step up to the plate from a financial point of view" and make the Melton experience available at a lower cost to other students.

According to Rabinowitz, Heidenberg and Fink had been preparing to take a post-Melton course in the fall of ‘005, when Fink died suddenly during the summer. The class opened in September, with students hailing from Alpine, Closter, Cresskill, Englewood, Haworth, Old Tappan, and Tenafly.

Heidenberg hopes his gift will go a long way. "Melton opened my eyes to the beauty and diversity of our tradition and taught me how welcoming Judaism can be," he said. "The two years of learning exposed me to a vast array of Jewish thinkers, from the far left to the far right, and everything in between, and from the ancient to the modern. It also allowed me to choose which ones worked best for me."

Michaelson — who, with his wife Allyn, devoted four years to Melton — said going to class was a wonderful way to spend a Sunday morning.

"The variety of topics was wonderful. It helped give a new dimension to religion." And the more they learned, he said, "the more it could affect our lives."

Melton led Michaelson to think about his own synagogue, Fair Lawn’s Temple Beth Sholom, which lacked a vibrant educational program. He teamed with congregant Harry Melzer, the husband of a current Melton student, to reinvigorate the synagogue’s educational offerings.

"The only thing that could have ever made us give up Melton was the opportunity to bring serious adult Jewish learning to our own synagogue community," said Michaelson.

"I thought there would be a lot of people at the shul who would enjoy this kind of program and would benefit from it."

His first step was to request that a Melton class be instituted at the synagogue, to increase the likelihood that members would attend. As the program enters its second year, Michaelson said he is delighted at the outcome. "Everybody raves about it," he said.

In addition, Michaelson and Melzer put together a series of eight lectures with the theme "The Joys of Jewish," inviting Melton faculty members to be the presenters.

"I did it for selfish reasons," he said, pointing out that not only does the lecture series bring the excitement of Melton to fellow congregants, but it allows him "to continue an ongoing relationship with Melton alumni." Of the 50 people who attend each lecture, he said, half are congregants and half are Melton alumni.

Rabinowitz, who has directed the local Melton school since 1999, when the federation took over the reins of the program from the JCC on the Palisades, in Tenafly, said the educational venture — funded by UJA-NNJ — was brought to the area by the JCC’s Dr. Vivian Kanig in 1989. While Melton graduates are clearly making their mark in the community, said Rabinowitz, the bottom line is that "Jewish learning is the key to Jewish survival, and it’s a ‘success’ just to have someone come and learn."

"The beauty of the program lies in its pluralistic approach," she said, allowing students to "remain who they are," she said. "The goal of the program is to have people fall in love with Jewish texts and want to study them more."

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