Driven by a personal desire for intellectual growth, Arie Katz set out last year to attract to Orange County the sort of eminent Jewish scholars that few synagogues can afford to woo on their own.
With little more than his own chutzpah and considerable networking skills, the Newport Beach attorney won support and financial backing from the area's most influential Jewish agencies to establish a community scholar-in-residence program. Its first event, at 7 p.m. Jan. 28, will kick off at the Jewish Federation Campus in Costa Mesa with the arrival of Avigdor Shinan, an Israeli professor and author.
During a monthlong U.S. stay, Shinan, 55, agreed to a jam-packed schedule of lectures, Shabbat events and study series at a range of interdenominational synagogues, four campuses, an educators retreat and a working weekend in Seattle. An engaging speaker and author of six books, Shinan is a specialist in rabbinical literature and has served as a guest lecturer at Yale University and New York's Yeshiva University. He is currently a professor of Hebrew literature at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and is the immediate past chair of the department.
In an e-mail interview, Shinan told The Journal he agreed to the demanding schedule, although he conceded the visit will contribute little to his own career. "What is being a teacher if not standing before anyone who is ready to listen and try and bring into their life something new?"
Most of the lectures, with titles such as "Folk Stories in the Talmud and Midrash," are from material Shinan developed for previous presentations at established community scholar programs in Washington, D.C., and Houston, Tex.
If the pilot program's intent is giving adults affordable access to high-level learning, it also reveals that the county's Jewry is capable of organizing across denominations and institutional boundaries. "The Federation felt it was very important to create a communitywide education concept," said Bunnie Mauldin, executive director of the agency, which contributed $10,000 toward the program's $25,000 cost.
"It's one of the few co-sponsored events that builds community," added Julie Rubin, assistant executive director of the county's Jewish Community Center (JCC). "It's a model for Jewish programs in our community."
Only one major synagogue is not participating in the community-scholar program. Newport Beach's Temple Bat Yahm has its "university," a five-part lecture series that on its own can afford to attract celebrated speakers. "I have speakers from Hebrew University all the time," explained Rabbi Mark S. Miller. "We ask our people to come to so much; we risk overload. I would wonder where to fit it in."
Though most local synagogues offer their members cultural and theological enrichment by scheduling visits by guest lecturers, a community scholar program's duration can create a different opportunity. "My hope is it will whet people's appetite for more, teaching adults that Jewish learning is a lifelong endeavor," said Rabbi Elie Spitz of Tustin's Congregation B'nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue of 480 families that is sponsoring Shinan's talk on "Moses and His Two Wives." "The depth of learning that creates personal transformation only comes through consistency," Spitz said.
While the region's Jewish population of about 60,000 is successfully supporting the physical expansion of new schools and new shuls and providing learning opportunities for youth, the area lacks resources for adults that are available in larger cities. In fact, the void here is reflected in most American Jewish communities, which place less cultural emphasis on adult learning than communities in Europe and Israel, Spitz says.
Some residents resort to unusual steps to fill that vacuum. Take Linda S. Seidman. Before returning to full-time work, the Irvine aerospace engineer would schlep to Los Angeles to satisfy her interest in serious scholarship from a nontraditional, feminist perspective. That luxury ended when she resumed design work on a global positioning satellite for Boeing in Huntington Beach. Seidman's solution was to hire her own professor, underwriting for a year weekly classes studying how Judaism perceives women. It is attended by a dozen other students and offered through the county's Bureau of Jewish Education. "We've gotten stuck in the first two chapters of Genesis and haven't come up yet," Seidman said. "I'd rather dig deeper than go broader."
Seidman, though, is an exception. Most Jewish adults effectively end their Jewish education after their confirmation. "What I think is missing is not big-name speakers but sustained education," explained Joan Kaye, director of the county's Bureau of Jewish Education, which is sponsoring two multipart Shinan courses. "The problem with adult Jews, is they leave Hebrew school after the seventh grade; they have a 12-year-old's vision of the world."
Demand for adult education has increased over the last 15 years, Kaye says, growing out of family-oriented programs in day schools and synagogues. "What family education has started to do is give people a taste of Jewish learning," she said.
Many communities offer nondegreed, adult education courses based on curriculum developed by the rabbinical training schools. These include the Melton curriculum, developed by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, training ground for rabbis of the Conservative movement, and the Me'ah Program, developed jointly in 1994 by the Committee of Jewish Continuity and Hebrew College, the Reform movement's rabbinical school.
Avoiding denominational barriers and potentially drawing people out of hidebound routines is a clear benefit of a secular community scholar program. "Synagogues have their own agenda and bring a scholar that's consistent with their religious orientation," pointed out Marilyn Hassid, program director for Houston's JCC, which has hosted scholars in residence since 1985.
"People live for this," said Hassid, estimating that the Houston program cumulatively reaches about 4,000 people annually. That includes a cadre of 40 scholar groupies, who often attend every lecture by following the scholar's itinerary. One consequence, she said, "is there's a desire to continue learning after the scholar leaves."
The inspiration for Orange County's community scholar program came from a weekend retreat that Katz attended last February through his synagogue, B'nai Israel. Noam Zion, a visiting scholar and master teacher infused the study of the familiar biblical story about Cain and Abel with relevancy about contemporary family relationships. "We did an intense text study that made people excited to learn," recalled Katz, 34, a corporate attorney who relocated with his family from Boston four years ago. "It was interesting and motivating."
After learning of the Houston and Washington scholar-in-residence programs from Zion, Katz set out to replicate their success by first seeking advice from two other synagogue members. "To me, it's a very significant event in the development and growth of the community," said Mike Lefkowitz, who suggested Katz rely on the JCC for organizational strength.
"If it's successful, it will perpetuate itself," added Dr. Harold Kravitz, a retired Costa Mesa family practitioner, who made federation introductions for Katz.
"No other institution offered this," Katz said. "We didn't find it, so we created it." For seed money, he and 19 friends chipped in. Synagogues are paying fees beginning at $500 per session, which will help underwrite succeeding year's events.
Even before getting underway, the scholar program is generating unexpected benefits, such as a co-presentation planned with the Balboa Performing Arts Theater Foundation of celebrated Israeli author A.B. Yehoshova next month.
Clearly an optimist, Katz is already securing bookings for February 2003.
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