Formal adult education in America is more than 100 years old as a popular concept, having started at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1907. As a Jewish concept, it is embedded in the Torah. Before going to the Holy of Holies in the Temple on Yom Kippur, the high priest would spend the night in study. In the Midrash, it is recounted that King David avoided the angel of death by studying, and only died when he was distracted from his Torah study.
The U.S. Department of Education found that four in 10 adults participated in formal adult educational activities in 2005, mostly in work-related courses or training (27 percent), and the second-highest category was personal-interest courses (21 percent).
We are surrounded by a nation of adult learners. There’s a lot to choose from, as any person with a mailbox can testify. So how is Jewish adult education standing up to the competition?
It’s often thought that lifetime Jewish educational participation plummets after a person has a bar or bat mitzvah. But that’s not what the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey found.
In 1997, one-third of Jewish adults in Los Angeles reported having participated in Judaic studies programs in the past three years. These Judaic adult education courses would be in addition to other categories of secular adult education. This would not be out of keeping with a highly educated Los Angeles Jewish adult population, with more than half (58 percent) holding academic degrees in 1997.
An experience with early Jewish education seems to prime an adult as a Jewish adult education consumer. Among L.A. Jewish adults who reported no childhood Jewish education, 22 percent participated in Jewish studies in the past three years, yet almost half of adults (46 percent) who experience Jewish afternoon school as children participated in adult Jewish education in the past three years. Jewish day school alumni at 38 percent and Sunday school at 32 percent fell in the middle. The additional effort to get from one’s school to a Jewish afternoon school may have inculcated the importance of Jewish education in later life to those children who went through that system.
While we hear many horror stories of the waste of time and negative experiences attributed to Jewish afternoon schools, the results in terms of those graduates pursuing more Jewish knowledge as adults belie the Jewish afternoon schools’ bad reputation.
It’s unfortunate that many synagogues and Jewish organizations have abandoned the after-school format.
Understandably, adults educated in Jewish day school reported the highest rate of post-bar/bat mitzvah formal Jewish education, 54 percent, but it didn’t cause them to return to adult Jewish education as enthusiastically as alumni of Jewish afternoon schools. It seems that keeping teens in Jewish day schools may not have been as effective with regard to continuing one’s Jewish education as an adult as just letting children go to afternoon Jewish school until they stopped, at perhaps an earlier age.
This finding might be unique to Los Angeles, and perhaps Jewish afternoon schools were of a higher pedagogical quality than day schools at one time. The afternoon schools may have been staffed by teachers who had other careers and were supplementing their income, whereas day schools were staffed with teachers whose livelihood depended on their teaching positions and careers, but not necessarily their love for the material.
Anecdotally, many Jewish after-school alumni report that some teachers, often from Israel or Europe, who were training for something else during the time that they were teaching or were highly trained, perhaps at the university level, enjoyed the experience and the extra income.
It’s often these very same types of teachers and students who are now engaged in the Judaic adult educational experience. The skills, talents and knowledge that are both honed and advanced in a mutual learning effort have attracted large numbers of adults to participate in adult Jewish education and added to the richness of Jewish educational choices in Los Angeles.
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