Can Online Study Impact Jewish Learning in Europe?

online learningBy Judy Mars Kupchan
and Rabbi Johnny Solomon

Among the voices of dread about the future of the Jews in Europe is one remarkable prophet whose focus is not politics or Anti-Semitism but an opportunity that is at stake. According to Barbara Lerner Spectre, “a dramatic reclaiming of Jewish identity is currently taking place in Europe’” which she terms “’dis-assimilation.” She explains that “These dis-assimilators represent an emerging new identity profile. As a group they are well-educated, often speaking multiple languages and knowledgeable of the literatures of those languages. They are anxious to engage as adults in serious Jewish education, are creative in cultural spheres, and frequently play key roles in Jewish life in areas where the remnant of the Jewish community was decimated by the Holocaust and the Soviet repression of identities.” However, with the exception of Paideia, a full time programme based in Sweden, there are few opportunities for pluralistic adult Jewish education available for those dis-assimilators who live in other Jewish communities. This means that if you live in countries such as Poland, Russia, Hungary, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia, there are no obvious portals where you can access sophisticated, non-denominational Jewish learning that respects you as a well-educated and serious learner.

The Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, a project of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was privileged to introduce one response. With funding from an external donor, Melton piloted “Melton Online Europe,” a 10-week synchronous online learning experience. Fifteen carefully selected participants representing communities in ten countries on the European continent formed the virtual class. The participants were between 25-40 years old, and all of them are heavily involved in informal Jewish education in their own communities. The Melton course in Jewish Ethics was adapted and taught by Rabbi Johnny Solomon, who supplemented the text-based learning with videos, photos, and other materials chosen to stimulate further discussion during and after class sessions. Debate online was lively and dynamic, and chats between sessions revealed the compelling nature of the topics in the real lives of the participants.

As a pilot program, at no cost to the participants, Melton and the funder were interested to learn more about the potential of this kind of online learning. Would the participants commit to regular attendance? Would they form a virtual community of learners? Would this experience contribute to their roles as activists and teachers? Could an online class have an impact?

Attendance was strong and consistent. Each individual learner actively contributed to the discussion while deeply appreciating the pluralistic approach to learning for which Melton is renowned. Virtual visitors to the class were impressed by the sophistication and depth of the comments and questions, as well as the signs of “community. In the feedback that we have received from participants, they particularly highlighted the benefits of this online course for networking and professional development, while being incredibly grateful for the unique blend of knowledge and inspiration. Participants described how they had directly used material from class in their own community work – whether leading a discussion at an organized Shabbat dinner, or teaching in a local school. They appreciated the absence of a religious agenda; no one was trying to change their Jewish practice. They relished the chance to explore the subject matter with a knowledgeable teacher who wasn’t judging them, but rather, who was encouraging and stimulating them.

More important than the success of Melton Online Europe in our own terms was the evidence we witnessed in 10 weeks that this program needs to be the first of many. The greatest need for the many “dis-assimilators” across Europe is an opportunity like this one for university-based, reflective, interactive, and pluralistic online Jewish study. We have a model for delivering high-quality transformative learning, and our tradition offers a wealth of material for study. The opportunity to serve this precious population looms large. Who bears the responsibility do so?

Judy Mars Kupchan is CEO of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning. Rabbi Johnny Solomon is Director of Jewish Education Consultancy.