The Chicago Adult Jewish Learning Initiative: Opportunities and Challenges

Adult learning at Spertus Institute, Chicago. Photo by Dan Rest.

By Dr. Dean P. Bell
First in a series of articles about lifelong Jewish learning

There are many opportunities for adults seeking to engage in Jewish learning – ranging widely in format and topics and offered from synagogues and havurot, colleges and universities, local and national Jewish organizations, community centers, and museums and cultural organizations. In Chicago, as in many regions, the number and variety of offerings for adult Jewish learners is vast and at times overwhelming and the quality inconsistent. Programs range from single sessions to multi-year commitments, and in some cases include certificates and graduate degree options. Such offerings are frequently unclear about their target audiences and often their learning goals as well.

While there are important examples of program collaboration among organizations, one has a sense that most collaboration occurs after a program has been conceptualized or even scheduled, and is intended primarily as a way to boost attendance. Even within individual organizations there is often little thought about the individual participant’s specific learning goals or ongoing plan for growth.

When combined with limited program budgets, specific organizational needs and goals (the famed “endowed lecture series about x,” for example), and the myriad duties competing for the attention of the professionals doing the planning, there seems little opportunity to create a framework to organize opportunities or collaborate for the benefit of program participants and the community at large.

Several years ago, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership – in collaboration with JCC Chicago and with seed funding from Chicago’s Community Foundation for Jewish Education – began a project to provide professional development and networking opportunities for professionals working in Chicago in the field of adult Jewish learning. The goals were to:

  • provide a forum for professionals working in the broad field of adult Jewish education to get to know each other and find ways to network and collaborate;
  • provide opportunities for these professionals to grow their own Jewish knowledge and targeted professional skills; and,
  • begin a conversation about ways to enhance individual offerings, dream about larger community(ies)-wide initiatives, and expand the number and range of participants in programs, while simultaneously eliminating some redundancies and leveraging economies of scale.

Following its launch, the project received significant funding from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago to:

  • organize a Chicago-area needs analysis and market scan;
  • offer ongoing professional development for professionals – and in some cases – volunteer leaders;
  • coordinate two community-wide collaborative pilot programs; and,
  • develop an online community program calendar and resource website (to launch in 2018).

A series of articles related to this initiative will provide ideas and best practices that can be used and adapted for others organizations and communities.

  • #2: Dr. Dean P. Bell and Dr. Joshua Shanes present the findings of the Market Analysis and Needs Assessment.
  • #3-4: Dr. Jane Shapiro shares her research and techniques for effective adult Jewish learning.
  • #5: Dr. John Dirkx offers thoughts about the value and role of emotion in adult learning.
  • #6: Beth Schenker discusses how she has incorporated collaboration and evaluation into her own public programming work.
  • #7: Ali Drumm reflects on the value of professional networking and collaboration in the field of adult Jewish learning.
  • #8: Marla Goldberg discusses lessons from the community-wide collaboration pilot.

In the Chicago program, there have been tangible successes and benefits. As you would expect, there have also been challenges:

  • We need to change the current culture and way of doing business. While many professionals participating in the group have enjoyed and benefitted from the working sessions together, institutions and individual professionals are still internally focused and need more opportunities, incentives, and resources to encourage broader engagement with the larger Jewish community.
  • Prioritizing and allocating time, as well as negotiating professional network logistics, can be complicated given geography and competing professional and personal responsibilities.
  • The people who plan and deliver adult Jewish learning are as diverse as the audiences they serve. They tend to wear multiple professional hats, and, especially in smaller synagogues, are often lay leaders. There is an important need and opportunity to provide training for lay leaders who work in the area of adult Jewish learning.

The Chicago Adult Jewish Learning initiative has been transformational, providing opportunities for personal and professional growth, opportunities for collaboration across organizations, and development of resources to help reach more adult learning participants across the region. The initiative has been a catalyst to begin important conversations about learning goals, pathways, and engagement within the community. While there have been, and will no doubt continue to be, challenges, we believe that this initiative is an important step in the direction of fruitful conversation and valuable change, and we offer the content to follow as a way of sharing what we have learned and encouraging further work and discussion.

Dr. Dean P. Bell is the Provost and Vice President of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.