January 5, 2006
So Much to Learn, So Little Time
Gina Gross would like to attend Jewish adult-education classes, but at the moment, she has a hard time even talking about how much she'd like it. The Beverly Hills licensing consultant briefly puts down the phone and turns lovingly to her 7-year-old daughter: "Dani, buzz off!"
Dani runs off to play with her 5-year-old sister, Sydney, which gives Gross a few minutes to discuss adult education, but not nearly enough leeway to pursue it.
"My kids are too little," said Gross, who adds that her Reform congregation, Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park, "does a really good job of marketing adult education during the High Holidays. And every year I hope I'm gonna do it. And I never do it. Kids. Work. Everything else."
There are thousands of adults in similar straits throughout Southern California.
"We are blessed in Los Angeles with a plethora of adult learning opportunities," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. "Synagogues offer literally hundreds of courses for adults as do many other fine institutions."
"Having said that," the Conservative rabbi added, "I wouldn't even hazard a guess to how few Jewish adults are actually involved in ongoing Jewish learning. I fear the number is relatively small. People need to avail themselves of these programs."
There are no comprehensive statistics on how many adults attend classes related to Judaism, or even whether these classes are attracting increasing or shrinking numbers. But synagogues and local universities continue to list impressive offerings, relying on their own learned staffers and rabbis, talented community members and a broader Jewish community rich with resources and scholars.
At Westwood's Conservative Sinai Temple, Rabbi David Wolpe's Torah study classes attract an average of 100 people every Thursday morning at 8:15 a.m.
"That's huge," said Sinai program coordinator Rachel Martin.
Lunch-and-learn events at Sinai regularly attract about 80 people.
"Anything on mysticism is really popular," Martin said. "It's more of the touchy-feely stuff that's really popular."
Over the years, said Reform Rabbi Steve Jacobs of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, congregants have shown tremendous interest in "learning about lifecycles, and in adult [b'nai] mitzvah classes."
Courses on Israel peaked in the 1970s and '80s, Jacobs said, but now interfaith courses and classes on Jewish cooking are on the upswing.
But who has the time? Attorney Josh Wayser and his life partner have three young children in Beverlywood and are members of both Temple Isaiah and the gay/lesbian Reform synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim, in Pico-Robertson.
"If you have young children, it's almost impossible to do adult education," said Wayser, a national board member with the Union of Reform Judaism.
"The problem is you're choosing between spending time with children or enriching yourself," he said. "They don't want to hear that you're going off to adult education at night or on the weekend. I have to spend time way from home because of work, and I volunteer in the Jewish community. Everything personal comes last."
Not that he hasn't tried: "It was very enjoyable, but it was on a Saturday. On Saturday there are birthday parties and all these things that you have to do."
Orthodox Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein said that deepening one's knowledge of Judaism should not be considered an option, nor buried near the bottom of the to-do list.
"I hate to be blunt about it, but the Orthodox have an advantage that the heterodox movements do not, and that's the concept of mitzvah -- mitzvah in the real sense of commandment rather than in good deeds," said Adlerstein, who does extensive teaching and directs Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "The mandate to study Torah is one of the most important of all of the 613 commandments in the Torah."
For Orthodox Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, "the barometer of success can't be how many people come. It's how good the program is," he said.
Muskin has mixed traditional Torah study with offerings such as scholar-in-residence programs. "Our approach is what the Talmud says," he said. "If you only learn Torah from one person, you haven't learned Torah."
And, he added, there's no seasonal slowdown: "We don't only run a series that lasts for six weeks or five weeks. There are regular classes, day in, day out."
One new option is the Internet and sites such as www.aish.com or www.askmoses.com, which are Orthodox in orientation.
Diamon of the Board of Rabbis said these sites will never replace people-to-people encounters.
"Internet learning is great," he said. "But nothing replaces sitting down with another individual or a group of individuals and studying together face-to-face and in person. That's classic Jewish learning."
For Kol Tikvah's Jacobs, Jewish learning also is about more than history, scholarship, religious tradition and ritual. It's about a cleaned-up Santa Monica Bay, too, and fair rental housing rates for migrant farm workers in Oxnard onion fields.
"Learning Torah for the sake of Torah does not complete the act of what it is to be a Jew," he said. "It's a combination of action and learning. It's what you do in terms of tikkun olam and tikkun hanefesh, the repair of the soul' You must act, and you must do, and you must learn."