Boundary Crossers: Adult Jewish Learning Summit Explores Collaboration

By Judy Mars Kupchan and
Dr. Bernice Lerner

In a spirit of exploring opportunities for collaboration and learning, nineteen providers of adult Jewish learning gathered recently in Newton, MA. Co-sponsored by Hebrew College and the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, the Summit for Leaders in Adult Jewish Learning opened a long-overdue conversation about how to advance the place of adult learning in today’s Jewish communal landscape.

Forty leaders crossed the boundaries of their own silos to consider common challenges, learn from respected faculty, and discuss the role of adult learning in building our Jewish future. Veteran organizations represented by Drisha Institute, Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, Hebrew College’s School of Adult Learning, Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, and the Wexner Heritage Program were joined by representatives of newer initiatives like Ayeka, Chai Mitzvah, Global Day of Learning, Kevah and Mechon Hadar. Our dialogue was enriched and cross-pollinated by a diversity of perspectives and multiplicity of goals, from engaging first-time learners to empowering adults to find relevance in deep and substantive text study.

Who led the leaders of adult Jewish learning? The Summit’s faculty included stellar teachers of text, researchers, and communal voices. Professor Barry Holtz (of the Jewish Theological Seminary) discussed the popularization of the word “text,” the pleasure derived from mastering something difficult, and ways in which Jewish learning is intellectually exciting, personally meaningful, connects adults to their past, and creates communities. Professor Marc Brettler (of Brandeis University) brought “dueling texts” to the fore in a discussion of biblical justice. Both professors reflected on their own practice of teaching adults.

Dr. Diane Tickton Schuster (of Hebrew Union College -JIR) proffered historical perspective on the field of adult Jewish learning (we are now in what Dr. Jonathan Sarna would call the “fourth era”; interest, as was the case in earlier eras, is being stimulated by “heightened social, cultural, and technological change”). She also invited us to consider those characteristics that could make adult Jewish learning a legitimate academic field. In a dialogue with Hebrew College President Daniel Lehmann, longtime president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies Barry Shrage shared insights on maintaining adult Jewish learning as a priority on the communal agenda.

Summit participants collectively focused on opportunities for the future: How can we collaborate to eliminate redundancies and better serve the needs of our audience? Who can we approach to support a clearinghouse of papers and resources in Adult Jewish Learning and an international data base? Who will develop an online course to define best practices in adult Jewish learning and offer a certificate for educators? Should we create a professional association? Where will our next gathering be, and how can we “widen the tent”? A Facebook page representing the Consortium of Adult Jewish Learning professionals has already been launched.

One question not asked was WHY adult Jewish learning remains such a critical catalyst to all that defines a robust Jewish future. All of the Summit participants have witnessed the profound ways that adult Jewish learning has inspired leadership, helped shape Jewish families, deepened loyalties to the Jewish community, and brought meaning to wondering Jews. No need to preach to this choir.

Judy Mars Kupchan is CEO of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning.
Dr. Bernice Lerner is Director of Adult Learning at Hebrew College.