This fall, the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary expects to enroll several hundred new students, most of whom will never actually walk through its Upper Manhattan doors.
In keeping with a new strategic plan that emphasizes outreach to the broader Jewish community, JTS is rolling out “Context,” a nondenominational two-year adult course taught by Judaic studies professors from a variety of institutions and streams of Judaism.
Designed to provide a university-level foundation in Judaism, Context’s structure and curriculum (a weekly class, with one year exploring the Bible and rabbinic texts followed by one year of Jewish history) is essentially a repackaging of Me’ah (Hebrew for 100), a course developed at Boston’s Hebrew College in the 1990s and exported to other major cities in recent years.
Indeed, both Moshe Margolin, senior director of the Institute for Jewish Learning, and Alisa Braun, the institute’s academic director, come directly from the Me’ah National Initiative, which operated in New York until this spring.
When Hebrew College, grappling with huge debts related to an expensive capital expansion, pulled funding for all Me’ah programs outside the Boston area two years ago, the national initiative tried to survive as an independent nonprofit, but began seeking a sponsoring institution to take it in.
“We dovetail magnificently with [JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen]’s new vision of what he calls the new JTS,” Margolin told The Jewish Week. “It’s really a match that was great for us, JTS and the Jewish community.”
For a new program, the course is getting off to a relatively ambitious start.
Already, 10 sites representing more than 26 synagogues and Jewish community centers in the New York area (along with seven other East Coast sites), have signed up to offer the course this year, each hoping to fill at least one 25-student class. In fact, Margolin said, he is now turning away would-be hosts for this year. In Manhattan alone, Context will be offered in three sites this fall.
While Conservative synagogues are, not surprisingly, well represented among Context’s participating institutions, most are hosting in partnership with congregations of other denominations. In Manhattan, Congregation Ansche Chesed (Conservative) is teaming up with the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (Reconstructionist), while in Riverdale, Conservative, Reform, Modern Orthodox and nondenominational synagogues are hosting collaboratively.
The Me’ah connections and the relatively modest tuition ($670 per year for each student, compared to Me’ah’s almost $900 annual tuition plus materials fees) have made Context a relatively easy sell to sponsoring institutions, particularly as many face shrinking resources to run their own adult education programs.
“The rabbis get it that getting leaders and potential leaders more Jewishly literate is something that helps not only the student but the congregation and the Jewish community,” Margolin said.
Rabbi Carol Levithan, senior director of adult programs at the JCC in Manhattan, which also hosted Me’ah, said that Context “offers something we can’t do on our own — we could, but we would have to devote all of our energies to it.”
“It’s such a highly structured curriculum and so focused. It’s wonderful to just have it there and bring it to the JCC,” she said, adding that “it is like a college-level course, but without grades or papers. It’s done at a very sophisticated level.”
Context is hardly the only Jewish education program in New York, where adult course offerings can be overwhelming at times with synagogues, Chabad houses, Y’s, outreach programs, universities and institutions like Temple Emanuel’s Skirball Center all hosting a variety of learning options at all levels. In addition, invitation-only programs like the Wexner Heritage program and a new North American initiative of the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute target people who are lay leaders, or potential lay leaders, in Jewish organizations.
What makes Context stand out is its pluralistic approach, access students will have to seminary resources via the Internet, its lack of prerequisites and its expectation that students will commit to a two-year program.
According to Margolin, Context “gives you a very good understanding of the sweep of Jewish civilization and really is a springboard for other sophisticated learning.”
It in many ways resembles the 24-year-old Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, a program offered in 54 locations around the world, including Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue, Long Island and in Rockland County. Melton, whose curriculum was developed out of Hebrew University, is more religious and less academic in approach, however, with courses taught by local clergy and educators, rather than professors.
Melton, according to Judy Mars Kupchan, its North American director, is “more about Judaism as it is lived: the ethics of Jewish living, the purposes of Jewish living.”
But while Melton has a devoted North American following, its enrollment and number of host institutions has been stagnant in recent years, with some observers speculating that it is too expensive for many recession-battered institutions to afford. While Context, thanks to the backing of JTS and several private funders, charges nothing to sponsoring institutions, Melton requires franchise fees and also requires sponsors to hire a program coordinator. In New York, many institutions, like a collaborative of downtown synagogues and a consortium in Westchester, offered Melton for a few years, but then stopped when grants funding the program expired and were not renewed.
“We are at somewhat of a disadvantage these days because there is a lot of attention on startups and new initiatives so, since we’ve been around awhile, the assumption is that we’re old,” Mars Kupchan said. “However, we have new curricula and ideas emerging all the time, and we’re also always revising our old curriculum.”
One new program: a version of the course tailored to parents of young children. That demographic is conspicuously underrepresented in the adult Jewish education world, where learners are overwhelmingly female and, what Context’s Margolin describes as “empty nesters and over” in age.
Context, also, hopes to step up enrollment of young parents and is encouraging host institutions to factor in their scheduling needs and preferences.
While education programs targeting younger people are often more attractive to philanthropists than those for older people, and while they often seem easier to cut than social service needs, “the fact is that if we don’t have strong Jewish leadership now, that has ramifications,” Margolin said. “If we invest in Jewish literacy now, not only are the students role models but they’re also making sure that the communities focus on education and see the role of the institutions they serve within the context of the continuum of Jewish history. That makes a difference.”
As Melton’s Mars Kupchan puts it, “In this kind of economy, very often communities make the choice of feeding the elderly versus supporting adult learning and learning programs get short shrift. But if a community doesn’t have adult learning and is not continuing to grow leaders who are knowledgeable, literate adult Jews, then who are going to make the decisions about where the dollars go?”