Thursday, January 01, 2015

Out of synagogue, Jewish teachers reach eager but busy students 

On a recent rain-soaked morning, pre-rush hour traffic splashed along Boston’s Atlantic Avenue. In a law firm seven stories up, a small group gathered around a table to discuss fair compensation for injury — according to the Talmud.

Rabbi Micha’ael Rosenberg, a professor of rabbinics at Hebrew College, led an intricate discussion of Jewish law, focusing on a category of damage particularly difficult to quantify: embarrassment.

“When the Mishna tells us, ‘It’s all according to the humiliator and the humiliated,’ ” Rosenberg said, referring to the first section of the Talmud, “what do you think that means?”

The class, “An Eye for an Eye — Or an Undisclosed Amount of Cash,” offered by Hebrew College’s Downtown Learning program, is part of a recent proliferation of Jewish adult education outside synagogues and other Jewish institutions. Rabbis and Jewish educators say they are responding to the needs of busy people struggling to shoehorn wisdom and spiritual growth into their day.

Some offerings are, as one student put it, like having a personal trainer for your soul.

In the age of Uber and Airbnb, synagogues and educational institutions are placing an unprecedented emphasis on flexibility and choice, in some cases allowing people to choose the location, topics of study, meeting times, and even the other students.

Rabbi Yosef Zaklos, who launched Chabad of Downtown Boston three years ago, spends many of his weekdays shuttling among downtown office buildings, offering concierge Torah study to busy executives at their convenience.

“Where a personal trainer helps you with the body, he helps you with the soul,” said Scott Levy, senior managing director at David Landau & Associates, an accounting consultancy, who meets with Zaklos about once a week.

He said Zaklos offered support when his father became ill, and the rabbi challenged him to rethink his approach to a difficult business matter. Over time, Levy said, “it’s a deeper relationship that’s evolved.”

The classes in Jewish texts, history, culture, and spirituality are partly a response to a trend that Jewish leaders consider an urgent concern: A rise in secularism that is threatening Jewish identity in America.

In a major survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, more than 20 percent of Jewish Americans described themselves as having no religion; one-third of millennials described themselves that way, compared with just 7 percent of those in the Greatest Generation.

The survey noted that, although there is a long tradition of secular Judaism in America, more than two-thirds of nonreligious Jews are raising their children with no Jewish identity at all, religious or cultural.

So Jewish leaders are seeking ways to reverse that trend. Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, has long championed adult Jewish education as a catalyst for building and strengthening ties to Judaism. Making it accessible is key, he said.


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