August 2, 2001
I have a recurring nightmare, one which I am
certain is shared by many Elderhostel instructors. In this darkest of dreams, I am teaching the final class of a one-week session when suddenly one of my 50 or so students rises out of his seat and announces, in stentorian tones, that he has been teaching this very same subject for 35 years and that I don't know what I am talking about.
Don't laugh. If I were teaching Bible or lecturing on great heroes in Jewish history or expounding on the minor prophets, this would never happen. People with expertise on such subjects at the University of Judaism or the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, where I have been teaching Elderhostel classes for 15 years, are home free. Who in a class of students 55 years of age or older (often considerably older) is going to challenge their vast store of knowledge?
But I lecture about Israel, the Middle East, Zionist history and the current state of American Jewry, and everyone in the class is an authority on these topics before they even enter the classroom.
There is a positive aspect to this. I don't have to spend much time explaining who Theodore Herzl or David Ben Gurion were, or comparing Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism. But to each coin there are two sides, and I ignore Ahad Ha'am or Ze'ev Jabotinsky or the Reconstructionist Movement at my peril.
Every Jewish leader, every Jewish movement has passionate adherents, and after years of keeping shalom bayit (peace in the home -- or synagogue or workplace), Elderhostel provides the perfect forum for unleashing those passions. There are days when I feel more like a facilitator at a group therapy session than an Elderhostel instructor.
If you want to watch this process at work, come to my Elderhostel course on the condition of American Judaism in which I ask my students to define "Who is a Jew?" Fifty people, almost all of them Jews involved in the Jewish world and knowledgeable about Jewish issues, will find it impossible to agree on a definition of who they are.
Do Christians or Moslems have such problems? I doubt it. Can you be a Christian or a Moslem and not believe in God? I don't think so. So why can you be a Jewish atheist? You see the basis for a very intense discussion, and, it is hoped, the opening of eyes to other ways of looking at familiar situations. This, I suggest to you, is one of the most valuable benefits of a week of exchanging views and experiences at Elderhostel.
Before I began teaching Elderhostel classes, I was warned by a friend with considerable experience in the field. "Beware," he told me in ominous tones, "the postprandial hour." At the time I was young (well, younger) and didn't believe that anyone would find it difficult to stay awake in the early afternoon. It didn't take me long to learn that this is not the best time to schedule an Elderhostel discussion.
The secret, I discovered, is to put on your agenda for that hour the most controversial topics you have. For a course on Israel and the Middle East, that may mean inviting a Palestinian spokesman, who usually begins his talk with "You stole our land," and proceeds from there. The purpose is not to provide the enemy with a forum (which, admittedly, it does) but to teach those who support Israel from where its enemy is coming. You can't fight effectively what you can't see, and you can't counter with any skill what you don't understand. Believe me, very few of my students fall asleep.
Nu, in 15 years, have I ever been challenged by a student who uttered the fateful words, "You don't know what you are talking about"? Not yet, although some of them may have felt that way.
One challenging incident, however, occurred last year at the UJ. Into my class walked a man who looked familiar, as indeed he should have. In the early 1950s, when I was a student at the University of Chicago, he rented me a room for a year.
"And by the way," he said, as he left at the end of the week. "You still owe me the last month's rent." He didn't press the point, which was just as well. At compound interest over half a century, I would have owed him my home.