In a brightly lit classroom on a Wednesday morning, Rabbi Deborah Silver leads a standing-room-only crowd of pupils in an absorbing dissection of Psalm 27.
Some 35 “students” — most silver-haired, some with canes or walkers — offer their thoughts on the rhythm of the psalm, the author’s fears and hopes, and how the text would look drawn as a geometric shape. In the midst of the discussion, Silver homes in on a key word in the text. She raises her arms to halt conversation and rushes over to the blackboard to write it out.
“Will you forgive me? One of the things that’s going to happen in this class is I’m going to get all excited about the Hebrew,” she says, her eyes sparkling.
Her students don’t mind. That kind of spirited teaching is why more than 100 adults flock to Adat Ari El’s Multi-Interest Day (MID) education program year after year. And this fall, there’s an extra element of joy in the air: The landmark program is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
On Oct. 20, the Adat Ari El Sisterhood kicked off MID’s golden year with a catalog of classes on the Bible, the arts, “Jews of the World” and current events. Offering two semesters of learning, fitness and friendship for adults, MID is now one of the longest-running synagogue-based continuing education programs in the country.
“There is a hunger for learning in the community,” said Sisterhood vice president and MID chair Jan Chernoff. “People are looking for intellectual stimulation. We have a real variety here — excellent instructors and interesting classes. Everyone looks forward to it.”
As they have for half a century, participants in the program meet at the Valley Village synagogue once a week for a full day of classes and activities, complete with a low-impact exercise class first thing in the morning to get the blood flowing.
It’s not unlike high school, except with no report cards, exams or tardy slips from the principal if a student, ahem, cuts gym.
First period starts at 9:40 a.m. with three class options. This fall, there’s “Wisdom of the Book of Psalms” with Silver; a course on the arts, covering opera, ballet and theater; and “Israel: From Alef to Tav,” a crash course on the history and culture of the Jewish homeland. Second period, students choose among current events, a lecture on little-known Jews throughout history, and a class that brings back favorite teachers from past years for encore presentations.
Students break for lunch in the social hall and then stick around for “Contemporary Challenges,” a lecture series featuring community organizers, local politicians, authors and anyone else Chernoff deems appealing to MID’s “very with-it” crowd.
After lunch, participants can gather at the social hall tables for open mah-jongg play, bond over memories in a life-story writing class, or join the MID book club. In all, the day is about six hours long, and to Marcia Fink, it’s worth every minute.
“There’s always more to learn, and it’s such a warm environment with wonderful people,” said Fink, 75, who has traveled to Adat Ari El from Northridge for the program for 25 years. In fact, so many of the same people return every year that the first day of class each fall is “almost like a reunion,” she said, waving to friends across a classroom.
Chernoff sums it up: “Friendship, fun and facts — and all for a couple of dollars a day.”
Participants can sign up for the fall and spring semesters together ($130 for Sisterhood members, $165 for nonmembers) or take it one session at a time ($10 per day). Registration is still open.
Two-dozen students gather in the classroom of Jerry Binder just before 11 a.m. for his ever-popular class, “Jews of the World: Who Knew?” Today he leads a discussion on influential Jewish members of the Dada art movement of the early 20th century, as his audience takes notes from a slideshow.
Binder, a UC Irvine and UCLA professor who has taught at MID for five years, said he crafts his presentations “so you can leave going, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that!’ ” He added, “It’s partly educational, partly entertaining. People can walk out and feel a little bit more informed and a little bit prouder.”
Most of the MID teachers volunteer their time to lead classes. Chernoff said she’s become adept at finding people with interesting life stories or fields of specialty and convincing them to “donate an hour” to educate others.
For anyone seeking stories about MID’s history, the buck stops with Bea Reynolds.
Reynolds remembers when Evelyn Neuman, Sisterhood president from 1959 to 1961, returned from a conference excited to create a wide-ranging continuing education course for women. Reynolds and the rest of the Sisterhood board worked with the late Rabbi Aaron M. Wise, who led Adat Ari El for 30 years, to put the curriculum together.
“It just took off — we grew like Topsy,” said Reynolds, 86, a soft-spoken woman with neatly coiffed hair who in 50 years has not missed a single MID season. “We’ve all grown together with it and nourished it and loved it. It’s really a model for the country and an opportunity for personal improvement.”
Since the 1960s, MID organizers have opened the program’s student base to men. Participation has fluctuated over the years, as has the average age — as more young women began taking day jobs, the majority of students became retirees — but the program still breeds the kind of loyalty that brings adults back eagerly each autumn.
MID’s 50-year milestone won’t go unrecognized by the Jewish community. At the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism’s national convention in Baltimore this December, the Adat Ari El Sisterhood will receive an award for its commitment to adult education.
In the meantime, Sisterhood board member Edith Marcus hopes more locals drop in for a class and broaden their horizons.
“There’s always something for everybody,” Marcus said. “The fact that it’s been around for 50 years speaks for itself.”
For more information or to sign up, call Jan Chernoff at (818) 784-0651 or Adat Ari El at (818) 766-9426, ext. 207.