January 5, 2006
Intense Me’ah Gets High Marks
A Jewish adult education program is bearing fruit, according to a recent survey.
And now Me'ah -- an intensive, two-year Jewish adult-education program marking its 10th year -- is spreading from Boston across the country.
The name of the program, which means 100 in Hebrew, refers to the roughly 100 hours of study time participants spend over the two-year cycle.
Me'ah, which began in 1994 with 50 students in greater Boston, is also now being offered in Baltimore, Cleveland, Rhode Island, Florida, New Jersey and New York.
In separate conversations about Me'ah, its creators, David Gordis, president of Hebrew College, and Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, cite quality and location as the key to its success.
The program is held in neighborhood synagogues and Jewish community centers.
Gordis and Shrage are touting the results of a survey of Me'ah's Boston-area graduates, who are moving into leadership positions in their Jewish communities.
Nearly two-thirds of graduates say the program had a major or moderate impact on their involvement in Jewish communal life. Close to half report increasing their charitable giving to synagogues and other Jewish causes.
"Adult education is up there with day schools [as far as] transformational opportunities," Shrage said. "This is the right moment in Jewish history because there's a huge longing for spirituality, community and a serious engagement with Judaism."
Me'ah's rigor and neutrality are appealing to a broad range of the American Jewish population, said Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. At the same time, he added, he would like to see a more sophisticated, outside, independent evaluation. The lack of such evaluations is a consistent issue with programs serving the American Jewish community, he said.
But Wertheimer applauded how Me'ah taps such resources as Jewish scholars for the benefit of the broader community as well as its transdenominational approach.
"The down side," he said, "is that it may be too neutral and not sufficiently prescriptive to encourage involvement."
Me'ah is one response to the controversial National Jewish Population Survey published in 1990, which alarmed the community about the long-term affects of assimilation.
"We were dealing with a population of people who by and large have been exposed to quality higher education and had become accustomed within their Jewish connections to be satisfied with mediocrity," Gordis recalled.
Their prescription was a high-quality, academically rigorous curriculum taught by college-level professors during a two-year course of study using Jewish texts.
"We're bringing the university to the synagogue," said Richard Feczko, Me'ah's national director. "It changes the relationship because it brings together elements of the Jewish community that normally don't come together."
Tuition runs about $1,200 for each student, about half of which is covered through subsidies from sponsoring Jewish federations.
If Me'ah's approach sounds obvious now, there were nonetheless few offerings of this caliber when the program was launched, said Gordis and Shrage. Other adult Jewish learning either was episodic or was higher-level learning aimed at a small cadre of synagogue leaders.
"Me'ah begins the exploration at an extremely high level," Shrage said. "You have the chance to change the zeitgeist."
Terry Rosenberg heard Shrage's motivational speech about Me'ah about nine years ago when her synagogue, Beth Elohim in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, was looking to revitalize its synagogue life.
"It was five minutes that changed my life," Rosenberg said.
Shrage prodded the group, Rosenberg recalled vividly: "'How come you have no problem if I asked you to distinguish between a Rembrandt and a Monet, but you're not embarrassed that you don't know about Rashi or Maimonides?'"
Rosenberg was so inspired that she organized a Me'ah class for Beth Elohim. In its first year, 1997, it attracted 50 members, who were divided into two classes.
"We realized that we wanted a Jewish identity which meant more than bagels and lox and High Holiday services," she said.
Many of the Beth Elohim graduates now are active leaders in the synagogue. Rosenberg now co-chairs the organization's committee on Jewish continuity and education, which is the funding source for Me'ah.
Richard Pzena could easily be the poster face for Me'ah: After he heard from a friend who works at Hebrew College that Me'ah might be expanding beyond the Boston area, he organized a group in his synagogue, Temple Sinai, in Summit, N.J.
"It struck a chord with a lot of people. You create bonds with your classmates and really learn on an academic level. Most of us went to Hebrew school, which was like pediatric Judaism," he said.
Eighteen people enrolled in the first two-year class. By the time they held an open house for the second class, 25 people signed up.
Pzena, 46, who runs a small money management firm, caught the Me'ah bug. Post-Me'ah, he's a member of his synagogue board, and sits on the investment committee of the United Jewish Appeal as well as Me'ah's advisory board.
"If you look at our group of synagogue leaders, there's a lot of overlap with Me'ah graduates," Pzena said. "Some were already involved, but others had a desire to be involved and saw Me'ah as an entree."