“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking”
By Rabbi Dr. Morey Schwartz
Jewish organizations usually emerge in response to a need. Whether local or national, the needs surface and inspired thinkers envision ways of addressing them. At times what is required is a tweak or redirecting of energies and funding, and at other times, a whole brand new, out-of-the-box controversial idea is born and nurtured by those visionaries who read the landscape in ways that are paradigm shattering.
A new world is then born, and the new thinking becomes the new paradigm.
The mistake, however, is to assume that the new thinking, the new paradigm, the new norm will be the ideal response to those needs forever. When it becomes evident that the new thinking is becoming the old thinking, an organization must be ready to change its thinking and recreate the world it has inhabited for so long.
The Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning is celebrating forty years, two generations since its founding matriarch submitted in 1980 her “General Outline and Proposal to Create a Community Adult Mini-School for Basic Education in Judaism.” Florence Melton’s thinking was to provide Jewish adults with basic Jewish literacy. Throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s, adult Jewish learners filled the seats of our Melton classrooms, signing up for our two-year signature program which promised: Give us two hours a week and we will give you 4,000 years. A common organizational tag line read “No homework, No texts … Know Judaism.”
The commitment was to 120 hours of classroom study spread out over two years, comprising 30 weekly two-hour sessions each year. It was this steep commitment that opened the door to a transformative Jewish learning experience for tens of thousands over the four decades who were ready to make that commitment and take a deep dive into the world of Jewish literacy. Similarly, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s 1991 best-selling book was entitled Jewish Literacy. Containing almost 350 entries on a wide range of Jewish subjects, the book was written to address the phenomena of Jews in search of knowledge.
The world has significantly changed over these past decades, and it has become evident that we need to rethink our approach. Literacy is no longer enough.
This past November, the Florence Melton School convened a group of leaders, researchers, educators and thinkers whose lives are dedicated in great measure to adult Jewish learning. Joining together with Melton’s leadership, these twelve thought-leaders convened to discuss the challenges surrounding adult Jewish learning in today’s world. In a world where time commitments are even more pressing and the need to become “Jewishly literate” is no longer a priority for people, what needs to change, and what is the new angle that we all need to embrace?
Modern life puts time at a premium. People need to feel confident that their time will be put to good use before they enroll. It is also harder today for people to make long-term commitments to learning. Even a ten-week commitment is too demanding for some when they take into consideration their work obligations or travel plans. In addition, the existence of at-your-fingertips information via the internet creates a perception that people either know everything they need know, or that they can search and find that information should they ever need it. These challenges often stand in the way of recruitment of new students.
Literacy versus Relevancy
A central debate during these lively deliberations related to the question of Jewish literacy. Many of the participants agreed that the era of peddling Jewish literacy has come to an end. To attract adult learners today, it is incumbent upon us cease telling adult learners what they need to know and instead, ask them what it is they want to know. The 1990 Jewish Population Study indicated that Jewish adults who had received a significant Jewish education growing up were far more likely to maintain a strong Jewish identity. That same year, the North American Commission on Jewish Identity and Continuity released its recommendations for addressing the serious concerns of the day and made it clear that the key to addressing the growing disconnect between Jews and Judaism was to focus heavily on Jewish education
For forty years now, the approach of the Florence Melton School has been very much about doing exactly this – exposing adult learners to the vast sea of Jewish thought, helping to make up for a poor or nonexistent Jewish education, exploring Jewish texts and mining them for insights and information that would give these learners entrée into the great Jewish conversation.
But are the educational needs in 2020 the same as they were in 1990?
More than four years ago, in an article posted on eJewish Philanthropy, Dr. Jonathan Woocher reflected on his twenty-five years of involvement with Jewish continuity and identity issues. He suggested that as the times have changed, so have the needs. He wrote that we are no longer living in a time when we can claim to know best what people are seeking. We are, rather, living in a generation where above all we need to listen to the learners.
Studies of adult education and adult learners indicate that the relevancy of what is learned has a more significant influence on adults’ motivation to learn than its intellectual value.
Meaning and Choice
One of the participants pointed out that most human beings today are in a state of disruption and disorientation. The old ways of understanding are not working. People are seeking havens for sanctuary and meaning. People are also seeking choice, and the empowerment to decide exactly what they want to study, what speaks to their specific interests and needs. In his 2006 book, business entrepreneur Chris Anderson contends, in a chapter entitled The Paradise of Choice, that in the business world, sales have moved away from selling a few products to many people and instead have shifted their paradigm to selling many different products, each of them to less people, but meeting the more specific needs of a much larger customer base.
So we agreed that shorter time commitments, relevancy, meaning and choice should guide our decision-making as it relates to any revision or development of curriculum in the years to come. It’s important to note that there were dissenting opinions. Some suggested that Melton should remain countercultural – the world today is filled with diluted opportunities for Jewish learning, frameworks for Jewish engagement that lack significant content. Rather, we should reach out to learners with the commitment that through Melton study they are going to be empowered with the tools to be a part of the conversations of today that will determine the Judaism of tomorrow. The Jewish world is changing rapidly and to be an active part of the change requires knowledge.
Overall, this gathering of leaders and educators affirmed for those in attendance our profound shared purpose and genuine desire to find ways to work collaboratively toward our common goals. Forty years ago, it was inventive, creative thinking that opened the world of Jewish learning to our students, and clearly it will be another surge of out-of-the-box thinking and collaborative efforts that will empower us to recreate that world in a way that meets the needs and challenges of today and tomorrow.
Rabbi Dr. Morey Schwartz is the Florence Melton School International Director. Working from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Morey advances the work of the Florence Melton School by seeking out new opportunities to enhance Melton’s global impact and overseeing the ongoing development of Melton’s extensive curriculum.
 In attendance were David Ackerman (JCCA Association), Rabbi Greg Alexander (Melton Faculty, Cape Town), Dr. Erica Brown (Mayberg Center, George Washington University), Debbie Cosgrove (Melton Faculty, Park Avenue Synagogue), Rabba Yaffa Epstein (Wexner Foundation), Dr. Lisa Grant ( HUC-JIR – NYC), Professor Barry Holtz (William Davidson School, JTS) Rabbi Elie Kaunfer (Hadar Institute), Dr. Julie Lieber (Pardes-Kevah Teaching Fellowship), Dr. Sandra Lilienthal (Melton Faculty, Boca Raton & Miami), Andrés Spokoiny (Jewish Funders Network), Rabbi Elyse Winick (Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston),
 Wlodkowski & Ginsberg. Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults, 4th Edition (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017) 83.