Adult Jewish Learning Initiative: Community Market Analysis and Needs Assessment

Adult learning at Spertus Institute, Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest.

By Dr. Joshua Shanes and Dr. Dean P. Bell
Part of a series of articles about lifelong Jewish learning

In 2015, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership partnered with the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago to conduct a market study and needs assessment of adult Jewish learning in the Chicago area. The object was to include a mapping of the adult Jewish learning market across venues – synagogues, JCC, higher education, public institutions, and more – with a particular focus on offerings during the immediate prior year.

In addition to formal and informal conversations with active Jewish adult learning programmers by project leaders, data was collected from multiple sources, including:

  • an online survey of Jewish community program providers;
  • an online survey for current and potential program users; and,
  • a series of four focus groups.

Approximately two-thirds of our user-survey respondents were over 50 years old; three-quarters were women. This reflected almost exactly the assessment by Jewish professionals of the makeup of their event participants. Most users were professionals and highly educated, with 62% having earned a graduate degree, but most had relatively sparse Jewish educations – only half had a bar or bat mitzvah, for example. Among those who have participated in learning opportunities in the last three years, the vast majority belong to a synagogue (84%) and do at least some of their learning there (78%). Most also study outside the synagogue (75%), with colleges and cultural organizations the two leading alternative venues. In contrast, only half of those who rarely or never use services in the last three years belong to a synagogue.

There were several findings that we believe are useful and will resonate with those who develop and implement adult Jewish learning programs, and so we share them here.


  • Most regular users (about 60%) attended only a few single-session programs in the prior year, plus “1 to 5” multi-session programs. The vast majority who enrolled in the latter reported consistent attendance.
  • Jewish history, Israel, literature and arts, theology and textual study dominated student interest. In contrast, Holocaust and Hebrew language, among others, were surprisingly low in expressed interest.
  • Among those who currently do not attend programming, Jewish history and Israel also topped the list of topics they are most interested in, but textual study moved much lower down the list of preferences. Notably, focus groups – largely made up of more current non-users – ranked arts and culture as most desirable.

Format and Presenters

  • Both regular users and non-users reported that (1) quality of instruction and (2) successful integration of a discussion/workshop component was most vital to them. In other words, the lecture format with an interactive component clearly dominated student interest. Focus group participants added that this interaction attracted them because it “built community” and “offered an opportunity to belong to something with like-minded individuals.”
  • All users ranked academic faculty at the top of their list of desired instructors, while regular users and current non-users disagreed about rabbis as preferred presenters. The former were equally happy with rabbis while the latter ranked rabbis far lower. Programmers, in contrast, listed rabbis as their most common category of instructor, followed by academics and then others. This is expected, considering half of the programmers completing the survey came from synagogues, but programmers might want to consider the attraction of outside lecturers, especially academics.
  • The most important criteria for a successful program – as both surveys and focus groups made clear – were the speakers’ passion, knowledge, and, especially, their ability to relate to the audience. Focus group members in particular emphasized the need for speakers to possess deep credentials and training, but also be “personable, charismatic, enthusiastic, charming, passionate,” and yet “humble.”
  • Perhaps reflecting the age of most participants, less than a quarter of users took advantage of online learning opportunities, and few others expressed interest in exploring them. This was true of both current users and those currently disconnected from program opportunities; the percentage of on-line users in the two groups was almost identical. The number one reason for their disinterest, by far, was the lack of personal interaction that formed a core attraction of learning in the first place. (Most of those who did use online resources indicated that it was either to read Jewish news or else to look up specific facts or answers to specific questions, rather than to engage in any sustained virtual learning experience.) Jewish professionals’ use of on-line resources matches this exactly; only a quarter of programmers have an on-line presence beyond marketing.

Scheduling and Logistics

  • Topic certainly ranked high in users’ decision whether or not to attend an event, particularly among participants in the focus groups, but convenience of date/time topped the list with all groups. Weekday evenings and Sunday afternoons were by far the most popular times. (Saturday afternoon also received some votes, but was a clear third-tier choice for all respondents, particularly for current users, well behind even Sunday mornings.) Critically, other users – older retirees, for example – preferred weekday afternoons. There needs to be some programming to meet that need, and thus this constitutes one of many areas in which improved coordination between educational institutions would benefit all parties.
  • Users emphasized the importance of programs near their own homes. People are willing to drive (or in some cases, take public transportation), but clear explanation of parking availability – and discounts or subsidy for parking if available – was important to many users.
  • Focus group participants emphasized their desire for clear explanations and repeated reminders of all logistics: class dates, fees, materials, parking and transit information, background of speakers, etc.
  • Cost deterred some people from attending at least some events – nearly one half of those who attend regularly and about one-third of those who don’t – but most also reported that, generally-speaking, topic and format most determined whether or not they would attend (assuming the date and time matched their availability). To the extent that cost mattered, most users thought that $10-20 per session seemed fair.
  • Members of the focus groups clarified that “value” and the feeling of having gotten a “good deal” ranked paramount. Discounts for attending multiple events, free giveaways (“swag”) or items that could be included in the cost of the program (such as a book), and similar promotions were extremely attractive to these groups. Healthy food and drink topped the list of suggested and desired features at the event’s conclusion, but focus members also suggested a structure of extended interaction with the program’s instructor, with follow-up invitations for related programs.
  • Programmers report typically spending under $1,000 per program inclusive of all expenses, with only 20% of events costing more. Obviously, without collaborative partnerships and shared resources, this budget poses limitations on marketing, staffing, supplementary materials, evaluation, and follow-up, etc. Funding comes overwhelmingly from two sources: targeted donations and budget allocation. Ticket sales are a close third, though probably constitute a higher percentage of funding for events that even have a fee. Professionals indicated that well over half of their programs have no fee, particularly for members of the institution. The presence of an outside speaker, and the added expenses this incurs, seems to be the most likely trigger for a fee.


  • Print and radio ads ranked very low on the list of media that reached participants. For regular users, word-of-mouth and organizational newsletters topped the list, with mass and personal emails just below it and social media below that. Non-users were reached by a more balanced array of media, although print and radio ads remained quite low.
  • Programmers place little stock in paid print or radio advertising, although half invest in direct (post) mail that probably pays few dividends, beyond the important organizational newsletters, whose relevance they should not discount. They also probably overestimate the reach of social media like Facebook, although that does reach many people and, in any event, it carries little or no cost other than staffing.
  • Users do not tend to visit the many organizational websites, suggesting that a centralized location of all community offerings across every institution could prove far more useful.

While many of these findings may not surprise those working in the field and although some, such as scheduling may be particular to certain communities and audiences, we believe that the study results offer some useful data to inform program planning and open new and fruitful areas for conversation.

Dr. Joshua Shanes is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston. He spearheaded the Adult Jewish Learning Market Analysis and Needs Assessment. Dr. Dean P. Bell is the Provost and Vice President of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.