Mark Weisstuch is interim executive director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El, which he co-founded in 2001. Weisstuch has a doctorate in theater history from City University of New York and teaches Jewish history at the center on topics such as Jews in Poland and Eastern Europe, the Holocaust and the Second Temple period. In addition, he is administrative vice president at Temple Emanu-El, a post he has held since 1985.
TheJewish Week: How would you describe the current state of adult Jewish education in the United States?
Weisstuch: I think it’s in an early stage of development. It’s something that needs attention, needs more energy, needs more funding. The funding community doesn’t see adult Jewish education in the same way that they see the importance of Jewish funding for younger people. The kind of effort that goes into Birthright Israel [the free Israel trip for 18- to 26-year-olds] needs to go into adult learning.
You’ve said that the reason more adults aren’t furthering their Jewish education is due to a lack of time. How can that issue be addressed?
It’s not only a question of people having time, it’s a question of how they prioritize their time. The object would be to create the kind of education that would be relevant and important to them so that they would make it a priority. Time is a precious commodity for everyone.
I also think there should be a kind of collaborative effort, a think tank, where people involved in Jewish education could come together and focus on adult learning.
What types of adult education courses are people gravitating toward right now?
There’s an interest in learning texts and studying the Bible and seeing how the texts relate to their lives. There’s also an interest in courses that deal with current Jewish issues, Israel being one of them, as well as current questions of Jewish identity.
We find that courses that deal with Jewish-Christian relations tend to do very well as well, helping people to define their own Judaism by having a better understanding of what Christianity is, where the distinctions are and where the similarities are.
In your nearly three decades working in Jewish institutions and Jewish education, what lessons have you learned?
I’ve learned that there is a great thirst for adult Jewish learning. Certain sections of the community are very eager to learn. It’s a group of people I admire greatly because they’re willing to commit time and devote themselves, and they study, they learn, they do homework and they treat it seriously.
There’s also a greater need for us to make Jewish learning more accessible. For some people a commitment of seven weeks for a semester is difficult, so we want to experiment some more. We have created our Sunday seminars, which are four-hour blocks on Sunday morning instead of a semester. We will be looking at three- week courses this semester.
Of course we do lectures, but that’s a different kind of learning. It’s a limited exposure and I find that more depth in learning is important.
What are the biggest challenges for adult Jewish educators right now?
Trying to reach younger people in their 20s, and 30s and 40s. There’s a different need there and we haven’t been able to get a handle on it.
What demographic makes up the bulk of your students?
They’re people in their 50s and 60s, people whose commitment to family is different. They don’t have to come home and make dinner, and take their kids to activities — people who have a little bit of time to themselves.
How would you counter the argument that it’s most important to educate Jews while they’re young?
I would argue that one of the avenues to increased effectiveness in student learning is to involve the parents in an integral and substantive way in Jewish study. It’s not an either or, it’s ‘Yes, we have to keep investing in the education of our children, but we also need to be investing in adults, especially the parents of these children.’ The parents, they’re not keeping pace.