Don’t Know Much? That’s the First Thing You Need to Know

By Ali Drumm

[One of a series of articles about lifelong Jewish learning.]

The most helpful piece of knowledge I gained when I began to oversee adult education in our congregation was the understanding of how difficult it is for adults to admit what they don’t know. We go around as experts in our fields, competent adults who manage households, staffs, and relationships all day. Even among colleagues, asking for help still connotes some kind of weakness – like you’re not really the expert your institution thinks you are.

When I began administering adult education, it was disappointing to see that there was no community-wide framework to foster cohesion and avoid redundancy, and there weren’t easy, obvious opportunities for those in the field of adult education to meet colleagues, cultivate meaningful partnerships, and enhance their professional skills. Additionally, there wasn’t a forum for sharing information, and for newer professionals to learn from seasoned ones. So many of the professionals who work on adult education, myself included, do so as a small part of their portfolio. The dearth of obvious titles of “Director of Adult Education” is only one of the challenges to finding colleagues who can guide you.

Yet my favorite personal mantra, a quote from Pirkei Avot 1:6 “Aseh l’cha rav, u’kne l’cha chaver,” translated in my siddur as, “Find yourself a master teacher, and acquire a colleague for study,” resonates with me as a continual push not to be so embarrassed for lack of knowledge. I see it as a challenge to seek out expertise and collegiality. Luckily for me, the Chicago Adult Jewish Learning Initiative – a joint project of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, in partnership with JCC Chicago and the Community Foundation for Jewish Education, eventually along with more than three dozen organizations who sent staff member and then lay leaders to participate – was on that same mission.

Through this initiative, I was fortunate to participate in a prototype designed to forge an organized and adept community of those who plan and present Jewish programs for adults. It was launched to build a Chicago-wide community of practice. It has already laid a foundation for exactly that – a future of cross-institutional collaboration leading to enhanced quality, depth, and range of programs and courses. I met incredible colleagues from a diverse group of institutions. These educators and administrators are sharing teachers and ideas, and since most professionals working on adult education do so with limited financial resources and while juggling multiple roles, partnership and resource-sharing is integral to success.

It is my fervent hope that this partnership focused around adult education serves as a model for other Jewish communities. There are very few programs – locally or nationally – that bring together those who plan programs for adult Jewish audiences. No outlet has existed for us to develop new skills, analyze challenges, and share successes with our professional peers. Through this initiative, we have benefited from ongoing monthly professional development sessions and community-wide partnership programming. In seeing other institutions’ offerings, I have been able to strategically adapt my own to maximize benefit for 21st-century trends. I have a better sense of the topics and delivery modes that most appeal to our congregants and possible synergies with the broader community, which now comes to our facility regularly for our programs as well as partner programs focused on topics such as Israel, Jewish Arts, Jewish Music, and Jewish History, as well as book discussions. Particularly valuable have been the insights I have gleaned from professional discussions about planning, marketing, and evaluation. Something even as simple as how to explain your pricing has been adjusted based on what I can now see other congregations and institutions doing. Hint: the price of the class should be listed first, and then the special “member discount.” The best ways to reach out to members and to connect learning opportunities with other events and interests has been important.

I’m far from being able to tout myself as an expert in adult education, but I’m getting closer every year as we continue the community-wide conversation. I’m lucky, because I live in the greater Chicago area and have Spertus Institute doing the heavy lifting. I know it’s one of the least popular large philanthropic priorities, but it’s high time that there are more national and international conversations about adult Jewish education. Let’s not be afraid to admit we have work to do.

Ali Drumm is Director of Informal Education at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois. She is a graduate of Spertus Institute’s MA in Jewish Professional Studies program.