It’s not only About the Children: The Challenge and Potential of Jewish Adult Educational Innovation

By Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

Whenever I think about my career as a Jewish educational professional, I always turn back to a teaching that struck me as counterintuitively brilliant. It’s a quote from the Talmud, and one that is far too often ignored in the mainstream conversations about Jewish continuity and the need for a sustainable model of continuing education. The line reads: “A parent and child must both study Torah. When possibilities exist for only one, the adult’s personal needs take precedence to the child’s” (BT Kiddushin 29b; Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 245:2).

Let’s take a moment to consider the meaning of this quote. For too long, the established trend was that the bulk of Jewish educational dollars – already a small pot – was to be put towards youth education. Of course, this enterprise is vital. But, to be blunt, the preferential amount of attention put to youth endeavors has been myopic in the long-run. The goal and challenge of the contemporary Jewish world is not simply engaging children with the hope that they will become the leaders we need them to be, but in actualizing holistic Jewish values throughout our models of communities and homes. In other words, Jewish adult education needs to be at the forefront of minds as we develop curricula for the foreseeable future.

When we talk about “adult Jewish education,” we must be clear that we’re not primarily talking about competency, fluency, or literacy of the tradition, but rather relevancy. How can Judaism be made morally and spiritually relevant in these challenging times? We are not asking others to sacrifice their values by learning with us. Rather, we make the case that they will be able to thrive in life more deeply if Jewish wisdom and learning is a part of their life. They will benefit greatly from this newly-strengthened attention.

In my capacity as a rabbi and educator, I’ve seen firsthand how adult Jewish learning is the mechanism for a vibrant and renewed Jewish future. Our attention needs to be placed on the meaning and consequences of business ethics, medical ethics, developing deep interpersonal relationships, nurturing spiritual growth, personal healing, and so much more. There is a perception that because so many members of the Jewish community receive advanced secular degrees that they view Judaism as irrelevant and childish when their Jewish education stopped as the teen years began. The answers they still remember from any Jewish education they received are children’s answers. More tragically, the questions are children’s questions. Illiteracy breeds contempt.

When performed with a rigorous attention to the smallest details, Jewish adult learning is as dynamic and energetic as education for kids or young professionals. In my work as the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash, as well as other educationally-oriented Jewish initiatives, my colleagues and I work hard and bring a passion to our work that demonstrates that pluralistic adult Jewish learning is an accessible and transformative vehicle to Jewish spiritual renewal. This is Jewish learning that is not watered down, circuitous, self-referential, or begging for the easy answer. Indeed, what makes Valley Beit Midrash’s model so singular is the desire to create bridges within and beyond the Jewish community, to stir discussion, to welcome those who have been alienated from other communal programs, and to be an island of deep, intellectual and spiritual learning in an ocean of noise.

This model is radical, yet so essential, if the Jewish community wants to break out of the norm and build a successful foundation for the trials that are sure to test Jews the world over in the coming decades.

We need not run around in circles trying to justify why Jewish adult education is critical to the health of our beloved communities and why the education for children will not work if there isn’t concomitant transformative learning for parents and grandparents. The paradigm of Jewish adult education, when executed well, is joyful but also challenging, deeply-rooted but also non-dogmatic, traditional yet progressive, and respectful of the past but also pursuing the future. In this manner, we not only challenge obsolete routines of Jewish learning, but create fresh communities looking forward to each new opportunity to explore. We make the richness of Jewish thought accessible to people who believed it was inaccessible We allow conversation to flow naturally and to be open-ended. We’re not afraid if there isn’t a definite answer at the end of a learning session. And that’s how learning, especially for adults, must be if we are to grow and develop as fully-rounded souls.

Now, of course, nearly every synagogue has some kind of adult education component as part of their institutional model. And indeed, virtually every community has some kind of targeted educational initiative. Furthermore, most large cities have a set amount of time committed to a day or weekend of learning, or other offshoots that spur learning. Yet, these excursions into adult learning typically do not go far enough, nor do they provide the continual substance needed to satiate the growing interest of Jewish subjects needed to keep people sustainably rooted in the expanded landscape of intellectual Judaism.

Meaningful Jewish experiences for adults have a profound and enduring effect on the psyche and will have a trickle-down effect to children. Sadly, such spiritual pathways to excellence have been stunted. Yet, if parents found deep meaning in the words of the Talmudic sages, if they were transformed by Hasidic thinkers, if biblical poetry spoke to them, if character development workshops helped them evolve, if lessons designed around the Torah’s view of social justice challenged them to reflect on their identity and their obligations, if Jewish art, music, or film helped cultivate spiritual and moral imagination, if Jewish meditation brought deeper inner peace, if rethinking about Israel or Hebrew or Biblical stories inspired them, there is no doubt they would want their children to be engaged in those same forms of learning. To be humble is to know one is not complete but rather to live a life of constant discovery and learning. To be courageous is to enter the unknown, only to leave with deeper questions.

It is true that for Judaism to survive, we must ensure the next generation is engaged and invested. But without more resources being placed into programs that fortify an interest in Jewish wisdom and Jewish values well into adulthood, an entire generation of potential leaders will never be cultivated.

There is so much potential just waiting to be unlocked here. Rigorous pluralistic Jewish learning dedicated solely towards adults offers the tools, with the most depth and breadth, for sustainable Jewish adult engagement. There are individuals who can be reached through synagogues, federation, and education institutions. Others who actively (or passively) reject engagement with establishments will require de-centralized, post-institutional engagement with gatherings in family rooms, coffee shops, the workplace, or bars. No matter where they end up, there is always the deeply-needed opening to engage adult learners in meaningful and novel ways. We can unlock this potential, if our community has the humility to move beyond institutional walls and establishment programming all too often geared toward increasing membership, donor cultivation, and hitting attendance numbers as opposed to measuring the quality and impact of the learning experience for individuals themselves. Initiatives are not national simply because they are in New York and drop into other cities. Rather, each major Jewish community requires serious adult educators and unique home-grown programs tailored to each respective community. The content needs to be of the highest quality while simultaneously ensuring the barriers of entry for engagement need to be lowered.

May we be blessed to think, build, and create these programs that reflect our communities and our aspirations for an invested, educated Jewish world.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash and the author of sixteen books on Jewish ethics.