A group of local Jewish educators are seeking funding to start a novel adult-education academy that would grant a certificate of recognition to students who complete its requirements over three years.
The Orange County Academy of Jewish Growth and Learning is envisioned as a way to impose a quasi-academic structure on an array of existing courses offered by local synagogues, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Community Scholar Program.
Around the country, administrators of similar nonacademic Judaic studies programs are also trying to elevate their curriculum with professionalism. For instance, the continuing legal-education requirements of three state bars now accept for credit an ethics class offered by the Jewish Learning Institute, a fast-expanding program established by the Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch movement. Chabad is seeking similar approvals in six other states, including California.
Behind the shift toward formality is the perception that to boost participation in Judaic studies, adults require a greater inducement than spiritual satisfaction.
"It may motivate people to take more classes by being part of a larger experience," said Arie Katz, chairman of the Community Scholar Program and who is involved in the academy's organization.
"We want to validate the study in the community and honor the people who do," said Joan Kaye, director of the Bureau of Jewish Education, who also supports the academy's formation.
Even without formal accreditation, an academy certificate would accrue some economic value. A national teacher licensing board for Jewish schools already accepts such informal studies as partially meeting licensing requirements.
"The motivation is to create opportunity for serious Jewish learning," said Michael Mayersohn, who resigned as rabbi of Westminster's Temple Beth David in August. Mayersohn would serve as the academy's part-time dean and sole employee. He hoped to start his duties this month.
However, the academy's request for $20,000 in start-up funding from the Jewish Federation of Orange County was postponed in September and put off for a month, along with other allocation requests.
The academy's five required areas of study would accept courses regardless of denomination and will rely on an honor system. A proposed $50 annual academy fee does not include individual class fees. Mayersohn would offer assistance in helping students plan a program that suits their interests.
"For the average person, it's possibly daunting," said Reuven Mintz, rabbi of Chabad Center of Newport Beach. "But for people looking for something deeper, this will please them," he said, still maintaining that too few learning opportunities exist for adults.
"I feel there is a thirst in this community," Mintz said, pointing out that four local Jewish Learning Institute sites drew 200 students weekly last year. Kaye, he said, had been skeptical about JLI's chances for success. "Commitment-based education had failed in Orange County," he remembers being told.
A decade ago, little attention was paid to adult Jewish education by the national movements. A shift is underway as new and established national programs, such as JLI, Meah at Hebrew College of Boston, Chicago's Melton Adult Mini School and the JCC association's Derech Torah, are rapidly expanding.
Paul Flexner, chair of the Alliance for Adult Jewish Learning, an educators' group, said, "People are seeking meaning in their lives and looking to find ways to spend leisure time in a meaningful way. "