Call it a university without walls or call it the next wave in Jewish adult education – the fact is that the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) is like a wish come true for anyone who wants a sophisticated and authentic entree into the world of Jewish learning.
JLI, which opened its fall semester last week, has expanded to include 120 affiliates in the United States and as far as Antwerp, Helsinki, and New South Wales, Australia. The current eight-week program, one of three per year given simultaneously in all the participating cities, delves into the meaning behind the “Bible stories” that most people know but few have explored in depth for their inner meaning and relevance.
The classes are designed to be user-friendly and yet intellectually challenging. “There is a tendency to underestimate those without a lot of exposure to Judaism,” says Sara Chana Silberstein, one of the authors (with her husband, Rabbi Eli Silberstein) of this semester’s curriculum. “Our job is to remove the technical barriers that may have kept them from learning.”
“Biblical Reflections: Finding Yourself in the Story of Genesis” will be followed by “Men, Women, and Kabbalah: Wisdom and Advice from the Masters” in January 2005 and “The Time Has Come: Unveiling the Universal Masterpiece” in April 2005.
Close to 6,000 students are currently registered this semester, according to JLI director Rabbi Efraim Mintz. One of the great things about JLI, he points out, is that a student can go on vacation or travel on business and if they are going to one of the participating cities they can pick up a class there and know that they haven’t missed anything that week.
Among the new cities selected to be participants in JLI this year are Baltimore, MD; Richmond, VA; Ithaca, NY and Clark’s Summit (Scranton area), PA. The program has grown steadily since its launch in 1998, with a selection committee choosing 15 new sites per year among those applying for acceptance into the program.
For students, according to one participant, JLI has been a way to go way beyond the talk on the Torah portion for the week, which is where many people stay if they don’t have a background in higher Jewish education.
Rabbi Shmuel Klatzkin, who helped develop JLI’s first course, says the classes enable people to feel comfortable with their Judaism. “The biggest obstacle facing someone who hasn’t been involved with Judaism is that they see it as alien,” he says. “When it’s comfortable, all of a sudden they feel intellectually at home within traditional Jewish learning and then they can go further with it.”
“Biblical Reflections: Finding Yourself in the Story of Genesis provides an opportunity to interact with the text and its themes on a deep level,” Chana Silberstein explains. “We spend three weeks discussing the sin of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil — which gets into the purpose of Creation. What is the relevance of these stories? Why is there sin? Why was Eve approached as the one to taste of the tree, and what do the punishments given to Adam and Eve mean?
“In the story of Cain and Abel we discuss responses to jealousy, the roots of teshuva/repentance; regarding Noah, how corruption comes to society; the story of Abraham is about the life journeys we all make.
“The goal was both to look at broader themes relative to people’s lives and to gain an appreciation of the text itself. Even those who may have learned may not have been exposed to the depths inherent in the text.”
Classes are an hour-and-a-half each and are open to everyone. Student workbooks, which are included in tuition, consist mainly of readings excerpted from textual sources. Knowledge of Hebrew is not required, as the materials are translated into English (a Spanish translation is also in the works). They include readings from Chumash (Five Books of Moses), Midrash, classic Torah commentaries and chasidism/Jewish mystical tradition. Supplemental readings are included in the workbook.
For the instructors in the field, the program provides a framework that they can make their own. “The aim is to have the best of both worlds – to have the coherence of being part of a large, well-run program and at the same time to have it remain exciting – which means that the teacher has to be excited,” says Rabbi Klatzkin.
“It can’t be lockstep.”
Each course is subject to extensive peer review and ongoing critique. Instructors share their experiences and insights via email and make their own contributions, such as PowerPoint presentations, available to all the other presenters. It’s a sharing environment that fosters cooperation and creativity, says Rabbi Klatzkin.
The possibilities for sharing are an advantage for both students and instructors, since thousands of people – who may meet up with one another anywhere or at any time — will now have a shared frame of reference for discussion.
“I find it extremely exciting that there are so many people who can connect with others over Torah learning, because there are so many people who are on the same page,” says Chana Silberstein “Over time this will help to create a conversation in Jewish learning worldwide.”
For more information, including class locations, please visit (www.jlicentral.com.).