It's a Thursday evening at Sinai Temple. Thirty-eight adults grapple with Genesis 37:18-35, the passage in which Jacob's sons sell their brother Joseph into slavery. The text seems straightforward, but Prof. Walter Herzberg, who chairs the department of Jewish studies at the University of Judaism (UJ), adds complexity and drama by asking the class to look at the implications of each word in the English translation. Why, he asks, do the brothers never once refer to Joseph by name? Why does Joseph himself apparently say and do nothing? Mindful, perhaps, that Southern Californians have a natural affinity for show biz, Herzberg challenges his listeners to play out the scene in their minds: "Think about every character who's on stage, based on the stylistic triggers within the verse. Think how you would stage it according to [the commentary of] Rashi."
Welcome to Yesod, UJ's brave new attempt to provide adults throughout the community with in-depth Jewish learning experiences. Yesod (which translates as "foundation") is the brainchild of Gady Levy, UJ's director of continuing education. Believing that many Jews are hungry for substantive learning opportunities, Levy has made it his goal "to engage them in the study of Jewish tradition and texts so that they'll be touched and inspired to learn more." As a way of reaching out to those at some distance from UJ's Bel Air campus, he has chosen to house his program in five widely spaced synagogues: Sinai Temple, Temple Aliyah, Temple Emanuel, University Synagogue and Valley Beth Shalom. And he has enlisted some of UJ's top scholars, along with other leading educators, to teach five-part courses in their areas of specialization.
So far Levy's idea seems to be working. When Yesod was announced last fall, the hope was for 25 participants at each site. Due to an overwhelming response, the limits were raised to about 40 people per site, with 100 others relegated to a waiting list. Levy is pleased that those interested in Yesod represent a variety of age groups and denominational affiliations. In fact, 54 of the original applicants have no connection with any synagogue. So much enthusiasm has been generated that a slightly revamped new cycle of Yesod is slated to kick off next fall at synagogues that include Adat Ari El, Kehillat Israel, Temple Isaiah, Shomrei Torah and Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.
Yesod is structured as a two-year program, divided into eight semesters of five sessions each. Thanks to underwriting by the Jewish Community Foundation, the original participants pay only $100 per year for a curriculum that covers, in Levy's words, "what we believe an educated Jew should know." Subject areas range from Bible, rabbinics, and medieval Jewish history to contemporary issues and the Jewish way of life. Those attending 80 percent of the classes will receive a certificate of completion; Levy hopes the experience will have made them "more educated and more committed members of the Jewish community."
At Sinai Temple, students respond with delight to Herzberg's close-in focus on Biblical texts. Clinical researcher Suzanne Schweitzer says, "The time goes by very fast. We read two sentences ... we blink, and the time is gone." Liesl Erman, a harpist with the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, signed up for Yesod because she was looking for spiritual connections. Though Yesod is designed to be academic rather than spiritual, she finds herself thoroughly engaged by what she calls Herzberg's "masterful" teaching style: "It's almost like a magic trick. He elicits from students ideas they later find in the reading. I never paid this much attention all through six years of college."
For Michal Freis, the Judaic studies coordinator at Sinai's religious school, Herzberg's material is not entirely new, but he has inspired her to begin reading the five books of Moses from the beginning, with commentators at her elbow. Her new enthusiasm has inevitably rubbed off on her students: "This has made it so much more exciting for the kids. Now they're on searches through the Torah for the cool stuff. This is like Harry Potter!"
Meanwhile, at University Synagogue, UJ professor Pinchas Giller is introducing the kabbalists of Safed as part of a Yesod semester devoted to Jewish spirituality. His lecture about the Spanish-born Jews who turned to mysticism in response to the horrors of the Inquisition is both learned and occasionally droll. Speaking of the value that Safed mystics still place on a meek and gentle manner, Giller quips, "These people would never be able to make a left turn in this town." He also broaches the philosophy behind kabbalah and spins fascinating stories about gravesite veneration in the Galilee.
Social worker Helena Hershkowitz enthuses that Giller's class "is opening new doors for me." She admits that "sometimes I leave very confused. Sometimes it's a struggle." Larry Kaltman, an architect who is known among participants for often having his hand in the air, likes the fact that through Yesod he can "revisit and readdress questions I have had about my place in Judaism."
Giller himself seems pleased with the caliber of the Yesod participants, whom he finds committed and intense. In his prior experience with adult education, there was sometimes the feeling that students expected to sit back and be entertained. Among the Yesod group, says Giller, "it's not a spectator sport."