Moving Toward Jewish Literacy

By Bernice Lerner, Ed.D.

At the end of his thoughtful piece, “Overcoming Jewish Illiteracy,” David Bernstein proposes a new slogan, “Let my people know!” He follows with a series of wishes for adult learning in our Jewish community.

Here in Boston, we have been working hard to address one of his “What ifs”: creating models of adult learning that convey a sense of our powerful, transmission-worthy, religious and national narrative. “No Jew Left Behind” is an ideal to which we continually aspire!

Through our Hebrew College-Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) partnership, we have been able to build on successes and try new ventures. We strive to create warm, welcoming and stimulating learning environments for adults of all ages and backgrounds. Some participants are products of twice weekly Hebrew schools; some were reared in other faith traditions (or with no religion); and some attended Jewish day schools. No matter the level of literacy with which adults enter, we provide content that fills gaps in knowledge and sparks a desire for greater understanding of Jewish life and rituals.

One of our programs, Me’ah (Hebrew for 100), entails 100-hours of classroom learning over two years. Taught by accomplished academics, the journey includes surveys of the biblical and talmudic periods, and medieval and modern Jewish history. Now in its 20th year, Me’ah boasts close to 4,000 local graduates, many of whom have pursued further learning. Dozens have assumed leadership positions in our community. Grounding universalistic values in Jewish texts and history, Me’ah attracts both secular Jews and those from all denominations.

We know, too, that adults navigating particular life stages can find relevance and meaning in Jewish sources; toward this end, we offer a host of classes and programs under our “Parenting Through a Jewish Lens” umbrella. Skilled and knowledgeable facilitators use texts as a springboard for discussion with parents of children of all ages (including “tweens” and “teens”); mini-communities form and often continue to learn together after their classes end. Special programs (e.g., “Matzah Matters,” which equips parents with tools to enrich their families’ sedarim) serve as “on-ramps” to classes. To help meet the needs of busy parents, all events and daytime classes offer free babysitting.

Through experimentation, we also arrived at an effective formula for engaging young adults. Our Eser (Hebrew for 10) program features a new theme – with ten topics that speak to that theme – each year. (Past offerings include Top Ten Jewish Innovations; Top Ten Influential Jews; Ten Best Kept Jewish Secrets.) A committee of young adults in their 20s and 30s designs the program; dynamic educators and rabbis teach small groups that meet in living rooms throughout greater Boston. All groups join together for thoughtfully orchestrated events, such as Shabbat dinners and “Ask-the-Rabbi” panels. Eser participants become friends, sharing in life cycle events and holiday celebrations. And we just learned of our first Eser shidduch (engagement)!

Another of our innovative initiatives is a “Leaders in Adult Learning” (LAL) fellowship program wherein we train enthusiastic lay leaders to “pay forward” a privileged experience. After one year of dinner seminars with experts in Torah study, facilitation skills and community organizing, fellows plan – and recruit students for – a substantive adult Jewish learning experience in their respective communities. During the course of the fellowship year, they receive specific training in facilitating “People of the Book” book groups. LAL thus promises to exponentially expand opportunities for adults to “own their heritage.”

Though we cannot hope to replicate the shteltl or Jewish neighborhood of the past, we are encouraged by these remedies to the “all-time low” in Jewish literacy of which Dr. Bernstein writes. With high quality internet sites and our collective creativity, portals into Jewish life and literacy may be more available than ever before. Their birthright is here for all Jews who wish to claim it.

Dr. Bernice Lerner, director of adult learning at Hebrew College, writes and speaks on the Holocaust and Character and Ethics Education.