Putting adult Jewish learning at the center of the conversation
The birth of a book is always a cause for celebration, but the arrival of Portraits of Adult Jewish Learning: Making Meaning at Many Tables marks a particularly joyful moment for educators and scholars who have long sought to develop a field called “adult Jewish learning.”
The birth of a book is always a cause for celebration, but the arrival of Portraits of Adult Jewish Learning: Making Meaning at Many Tables (Wipf and Stock, 2022) marks a particularly joyful moment for educators and scholars who have long sought to develop a field called “adult Jewish learning.” Long a subfield of the broader discipline of Jewish education, adult Jewish learning has been something of a stepchild in academia. Many people go into Jewish studies, Jewish education or the rabbinate because they want to work with adults. Occasionally they will have the opportunity to take a course on adult education. But there are no graduate degree programs that focus exclusively on Jewish adult learners, teachers, pedagogy or settings. More importantly, there is very little research literature or scholarly journal dedicated to the particulars of the adult Jewish learning experience. There is no knowledge base, and very few materials to help adult Jewish educators think about their work. There are no formal credentialing processes or mechanisms of systematic performance review for adult educators in Jewish contexts. And although there once may have been the perception of a standardized curriculum meant to guide the “serious” learning of informed Jews — a curriculum traditionally organized around the study of classical texts — Jon Levisohn’s 2019 probing essay about the need for a much broader definition of Jewish literacy upends any discussion about the parameters of the adult Jewish learning experience.
As someone who has been conducting research about adult Jewish learners and teachers for the past 25 years, the publication of the Portraits book signals a maturing of a much-needed communal conversation about such questions as
- What do we mean by “Jewish learning”?
- Who is present at today’s “tables of Jewish learning”?
- Where is contemporary adult Jewish learning now taking place?
- Which learning activities enrich the contemporary adult Jewish learner’s educational experience?
- How do current adult learners integrate their Jewish learning into their lives?
In my role of director of the Portraits of Adult Jewish Learning (PAJL) project at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, I have had the unparalleled privilege to come together regularly with a group of colleagues — designated PAJL Fellows — to discuss these kinds of questions for the past three years. In what amounted to collaborative study sessions, each group member brought empirical data about Jewish adults who were engaged in a Jewish learning experience. Together we debated issues about what makes adult Jewish learning so impactful, what kinds of pedagogical moves effective Jewish adult educators employ, how Jewish adults create and self-direct their own independent learning moments, the important role in many adult Jewish learning spaces of those who are adjacent to Jewish communities, how adult Jewish learners construct their own meanings — some by grappling with challenging texts, others by engaging in Jewish social justice work, others who have come to Judaism with questions shaped by non-Jewish backgrounds, and so on. Our conversations afforded these researchers and practitioners from radically different sectors of the Jewish community to interact and exchange ideas from varying perspectives.
We especially explored how to translate our research findings into accounts that would be useful to a general readership; none of us wanted our data analyses to end up squirreled away in an academic journal or foundation report. We discovered that we had rich and colorful stories to share, and that using the social science methodology of portraiture could help us bridge the gap between research and practice. Together, we produced Portraits of Adult Jewish Learning: Making Meaning at Many Tables, a book that already is creating a buzz about the need for more conversations about who now sits at — or walks around in — or logs on to — the diverse “tables” of learning that engage Jewish adults today. These conversations need to take place among the many constituencies which aspire to serve the widening array of Jewish adults who are hungry for meaningful education. Together, educators, rabbis, adult learning programs, Jewish community organizations, synagogue adult learning committees, online platform managers, funders and learners themselves can foster creative inquiry about the scope and purposes adult Jewish learning. Such conversations can help identify new populations to be served, venues to be developed, resources to be made available, and other inadequately addressed topics. They can also help adult Jewish educators become more effective in their work, not because these portraits have identified “best practices” but because they provide windows into a wide range of actual settings with real teachers and real learners pursuing the real challenges of their work. And they can help to inspire additional portraits that will lead to a clearer definition of the field and, in the spirit of twentieth century adult Jewish educator and philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, to new insights about how to move Jewish learning from “the periphery of Jewish life” to the center.
Please join a group of leading education thought leaders for a conversation about adult Jewish learning at a celebrative virtual book launch on September 21, 2022 (1-2:15 ET), hosted by the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. Register here for this important gathering.
Diane Tickton Schuster, PhD, is an affiliated scholar at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University.