As an experienced plastic surgeon, Dr. Joel Teplinsky knows how to fix a nose or perform a skin graft on a burn patient. As a lecturer at the University of California Los Angeles, Teplinsky knows how to communicate these skills to students. But what he did not have was a solid base of knowledge about Torah or Jewish history -- until the opportunity arose to be a part of the Yesod program at the University of Judaism (UJ), studying with professors like Aryeh Cohen and Rabbi Miriyam Glazer.
"Most Jews, unless they are rabbis or grow up going to a yeshiva, don't get a chance to do this," Teplinsky said. "This is not Sunday school where you learn some bubbie meises [old wives' tales], this is the real nuts and bolts of Judaism."
On May 30, Teplinsky and 176 other students will become the first graduates of the Yesod program. Yesod, which means "foundation," is a two-year intensive series of classes designed to provide a structured way for people to engage in a learning experience similar to that of an undergraduate in Jewish studies. What makes the program unique is that it has been run at a very low cost (currently $250 per year) and in association with area synagogues, with classes taking place at various shuls around town, such as Sinai Temple in Westwood, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.
Yesod initiated its first two-year cycle of classes in the fall of 2000. The program consists of eight semesters, each a five-week session exploring one of eight topics, including the Bible, contemporary issues, Jewish spirituality and modern Jewish history, all taught by UJ faculty and visiting professors. A second cycle began last fall, and another cycle will start in September, although according to Gady Levy, director of the UJ's department of continuing education and creator of Yesod, the program will reduce its locations to just two synagogues, not yet chosen, in order to better accommodate instructors' schedules.
Like Teplinsky, some people come to the Yesod wanting to offset a rather limited background in Judaism. Others, such as Elana Artson, 41, find themselves at the opposite extreme. As the wife of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the UJ's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Elana Artson has been exposed to plenty in the way of Jewish knowledge. At the same time, she said, because of the time spent supporting her husband in his endeavors and caring for their two children, she rarely had time to do any intellectual exploration of her own. Yesod gave her the chance to step outside of her usual roles and spend time learning.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson said he found the program "unique in its comprehensiveness."
"There was something similar offered at the Jewish Theological Seminary when Brad was a student, an opportunity for people from the community to study with some of the professors, but it was kind of hit-and-miss," Elana Artson recalled. "Yesod is synagogue-based and has an intensive curriculum. My first class was studying Bible with Walter Hertzberg [chair of the UJ's department of undergraduate studies] who teaches in such a way that anyone could come in at their level and be able to engage in a conversation about the text. It was wonderful knowing I was learning what rabbinical students are also learning."
Of the 216 people who began with the first cycle, 82 percent stayed through graduation.
The program has proved so popular that Levy is even launching a continuation course of the continuation course: Yesod Plus, a third-year series for Yesod graduates.
"Our ultimate goal for our students is to have them take the program for two years and be touched by it so that they can continue their education in other ways, whether it is to take classes at their synagogue or the UJ or just to read more," Levy said. "We want them to advance their own knowledge."
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