"It's a great privilege for me to come to the Melton classes," said Leora Raikin, a South African-born student.
Her mother takes Melton classes in Cape Town, and the two are planning a trip to Israel together for a 10-day Melton school seminar next year. For Raikin, who takes time out from work to attend the classes for two hours twice a week, Melton is her "guilty pleasure."
The Conejo/West Valley branch that started in 2007 joins 61 Melton Mini-Schools that meet each week in 60 cities throughout North America and elsewhere in the world. Around 5,500 students study a two-year curriculum developed through Hebrew University's Melton Centre for Jewish Education in Jerusalem. The first-year curriculum focuses on central texts and concepts related to ritual and life-cycle observances, as well as essential Jewish concepts in the Bible, Talmud and other texts. Second-year students focus on Jewish ethics and history.
Los Angeles hasn't seen a Melton program in several years, since the American Jewish University (AJU), which at the time was the University of Judaism (UJ), hosted a Melton school about a decade ago. The new Conejo/West Valley program has been so successful that it will add classes at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks starting in September. Between the two schools the program expects to more than double its numbers as new students join and 74 out of the original 75 students return for the second year. Most of the current Conejo/West Valley Melton students give the program high marks, with 94 percent evaluating their learning experience as highly satisfying. But more importantly, the students say the Jewish literacy they've gained has inspired greater introspection and a fuller Jewish life.
Rabbi Richard Camras of Shomrei Torah Synagogue, which is hosting a Taste of Melton event on Sept. 11, said that enthusiasm for the program comes from a desire for greater Jewish literacy.
"It reflects that adults have to [Jewishly] catch up with their children and grandchildren now," he said.
Students pay $600 per year to participate, and each class runs 30 weeks.
Although the sessions take place in a formal classroom setting with a whiteboard and textbooks, it doesn't have the feel of a stuffy college or graduate school lecture. Instead, the environment is relaxed and active participation is encouraged.
"The mini-school has been a pioneer in adult Jewish learning," said Judy Kupchan, director of educational services and teacher for the Melton school's North American office in Chicago.
The Melton system is the vision of Florence Zacks Melton, a longtime supporter of Jewish education who saw a demand for quality, pluralistic, text-based adult Jewish learning in the United States. She approached several educational institutions in her community in the early 1980s, and after being turned down by many organizations, her husband, Sam, contacted the president of Hebrew University, who accepted the proposal. Since it was established in 1986, more than 25,000 students worldwide have graduated from the two-year program.
The local school is made possible through support of The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, Mount Sinai Memorial Park and a consortium of 15 synagogues and schools.
For a community to bring in a mini-school is a big investment, Kupchan said. "We won't sell the franchise to a community without the proper support or infrastructure."
"Shomrei Torah is a wonderful model and is a good example of how a community can come together," Kupchan said. "For students who want to meet people with varying points of view, this is a great program."
AJU, formerly the UJ, hosted a Melton program about 10 years ago. Gady Levy, dean of the Whizin Center of Continuing Education at AJU, said the program ran its course and ended within a few years.
"The classes are a great opportunity for adults to learn Judaic studies," he said. "The more educational opportunities offered in the city, the more it will strengthen all of our programs."
Aside from its foreign languages and programs like the two-year master class, the AJU's continuing education department focuses primarily on a variety of short-term Jewish adult education courses.
"Different people look for various ways of being engaged," Levy added. "Melton is a time commitment, but for people who can commit to two years it's a good program —in fact, some see the two-year duration as a plus.
"The two years at Melton gives students time to understand some of the things they have only absorbed small pieces of over time," Kupchan said.
She said that what makes Shomrei Torah's Melton school such a success is the staff, especially its director, Rabbi Rachel Bovitz.
"We focus on the quality of learning, and our teachers are very well trained," Bovitz said. "The best part about the classes are what the students bring to it, such as life experience. It creates a great forum for learning."
For the students, learning with the same group of people each week has led to a casual familiarity that many look forward to.
"I love to hear the different opinions in this group," said Nancie Esulin, mother of a 6-year-old and 11-year-old.
Growing up with secular Israeli parents, Esulin, 42, picked up some Jewish learning but said that she wanted something more in-depth to latch onto.
"I want to learn about my history," she said. "I am so proud to be Jewish."
Shomrei Torah Synagogue will host a "Taste of Melton" on Sept. 11, 7:45 p.m. 7353 Valley Circle Blvd., West Hills. For more information, call (818) 346-6106 or visit Conejo/West Valley Florence Melton Adult Mini-School