Character and Community: Today’s Adult Jewish Learning Imperative

Yehoshua ben Perachyah said: Make for yourself a teacher; acquire for yourself a friend; and judge every person on the positive side. Avot 1:6

Participants in an adult Jewish learning program

By Rabbi Rachel Bovitz and Dr. Alisa Braun

For Yehoshua ben Perachyah, the key to human thriving can be found in the type of relationships we build with others. Community-based adult Jewish learning settings are spaces in which these relational practices are actualized. Research on adult Jewish learning suggests that a variety of factors motivate adults to study Jewish subjects: professional development, the desire to be a Jewish role model, interest in building social relationships, and seeking meaning in a time of significant transition.

The quest to find new meaning and to grow as individuals is nurtured through the relationships that develop between teacher and student and among peers. Below we discuss how this happens in community-based adult learning and how, in this setting, as the individual adult learner grows, the whole Jewish community flourishes.

Make for yourself a teacher

Adult educators understand that their students have distinct needs and characteristics that inform how they learn. In particular, their learners often arrive with deep and longstanding assumptions about Judaism. Growth, in this sense, requires an examining and testing of assumptions and attachments. A teacher can be a catalyst for this kind of reflection.

Along with a wealth of life experience, many adult learners have a high degree of secular education and professional achievement. This level of accomplishment is not typically matched by their Jewish fluency, creating a situation where adults are highly conscious about what they do not know. The bonds formed between teacher and student can mitigate the emotionally-charged nature of adult Jewish learning. When teachers recognize and value the adult learner’s full set of experiences, they can help students integrate new Jewish knowledge into their full selves. And by creating an atmosphere in which vulnerability can be acknowledged, a teacher plays an important role in ensuring that adult learners do not feel shame or disaffected, but rather empowered to strengthen their attachment.

Acquire for yourself a friend

According to Maimonides, when we acquire friends “…both individuals desire and focus on a single objective: doing good. Each desires to draw strength from their colleague and to attain this good for them both.” Friendship in this highest form nurtures goodness among friends and ultimately has a wider ripple effect on the world around them.

As participants in adult Jewish learning experiences will attest, friendships formed around a table, on a heritage tour, or even those that originate in an online discussion create powerful bonds that connect students in ways that transcend the boundaries of the learning setting. When adults go through major life transitions such as retirement or the loss of a loved one, fellow adult learners can offer support and wisdom from common experience while at the same time maintaining a sense of shared purpose in their learning.

And judge every person on the positive side

Much of the content of Jewish study, whether it is a classic debate between the rabbis found in the Talmudic tradition or a course foregrounding the evolution of Jewish culture and practice, by definition challenges the learner to acknowledge multiple perspectives. To engage in Jewish learning is to reckon with the realization that there is not one obvious truth or one definitive way of being Jewish. Exploring these different perspectives in our texts teaches us how to reason well and encourages a way of being in the world that recognizes change and complexity. This is a stance of openness and curiosity towards new ideas and people who see things differently.

In terms of context, community-based adult Jewish learning can create an atmosphere where people feel invited to participate, invested in one another’s development (not just their own) and come to appreciate diverse viewpoints. And as most learners come to understand, the more we learn, the more we recognize how little we know. This humility, mutuality, and curiosity are the very same qualities that are at the heart of judging others favorably.

And So

We live in a time where the tenor of political debate, within and outside the Jewish community, has become increasingly divisive. Too often, discussions devolve into personal attacks; it’s much easier to point to another person as the problem than to grapple with the complexity of an important issue. Pluralistic learning communities that invite multiple voices to participate in respectful but also deep dialogue, that focus on learning to listen and understanding the views of others, model a type of conversation that can increase the constructiveness of our broader communal discussions.

How might your community invest in adult Jewish learning that can yield these outcomes? We offer the following strategies:

1. We are enjoying a golden age of adult Jewish learning programs, local and (inter)national, immersive and episodic, in-person and online, covering topics both religious and cultural. Together with local colleagues, you can develop a resource list of adult learning opportunities so individuals can identify Jewish learning that fits their schedules, interests and motivations.

2. Adult Jewish learning as a catalyst for strong communities depends on teachers who are skilled creating environments where mutuality, appreciation, humility, and attentiveness are paramount. Investing in the ongoing development of educators will enable them to hone their skills in teaching adults who have evolving needs.

3. Learning can be a gateway for a community’s diverse population to feel empowered and valued. As we witness the contours of our community changing, specifically through the rise in interfaith relationships and families, we should prioritize adult Jewish learning as a tool for creating inclusive communities.

4. Adult learners are a valuable resource as teachers themselves and we can be more intentional about inviting and encouraging them to take on teaching roles in our communities. When we ask them to share words of torah at a board meeting or serve as a mentor, adult learners become our partners in building community and sharing Jewish wisdom.

Rabbi Rachel Bovitz and Dr. Alisa Braun co-chaired the 2016 Summit for Leaders in Adult Jewish Learning. Rachel is the Chief Strategy Officer of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning. Alisa is the Academic Director of Community Engagement at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

An earlier version of this article was published in JFNA’s Jewish Education and Engagement.