Gratz College to Expand Adult Education with 300K Donation

A group of people dressing up pose for a photo.
The Cohen family and Gratz College staff at a gathering at Gratz on May 22 | Courtesy of Gratz College

Former Gratz College board member Daniel Cohen was a student at Gratz from age 5 until 93, about a year before his death in April 2022. He had served on the board since 1957.

“I have been almost everything at Gratz, from elementary school student to chairman of the board, and from teacher to carpool driver to parent,” Cohen said in a September 2020 oral history of Gratz.

Cohen’s passion for adult education, shared by his wife Louise, lives on in the form of a trust that still supports the college. But now the couple’s legacy will be cemented in Gratz’s Adult Jewish Learning program.

Cohen’s four children finalized a $150,000 gift to the college on May 22, matched by Gene R. Hoffman, an alumnus of Gratz’s Jewish Studies program, intended to expand Gratz’s adult education program.

The newly named Daniel and Louise Cohen Adult Jewish Learning Program will continue to grow Gratz’s noncredit courses, continuing legal education courses, endowed speaker series and in-person Gratz Cafe programs. The donation allowed Gratz to hire Rabbi Daniel Levitt, former executive director at Hillel of Temple University, to become the program’s director.

The adult learning program’s expansion follows “the proposition that Torah lishmah, Torah for its own sake, must be a good thing,” Gratz President Zev Eleff said. “We’re leaning into our role as a cultivator and incubator of Torah conversations.”

Gratz College in Melrose Park offers year-round courses covering the Holocaust, Israel and Jewish history, such as “Soviet and Post-Soviet Jewry: 175 Personal Journeys” as part of its adult education programming, which primarily serves retired and semi-retired adults in the Philadelphia area.

Upon joining Gratz’s administration on June 1, Levitt will embark on a listening tour of the Philadelphia Jewish community to decide the direction of future courses and programs.

“I’m interested in hearing about what people’s Jewish journeys have been throughout their lives,” Levitt said. “At this stage in their lives, if they want to engage in further deeper Jewish learning — and, in my experience, so many people do — what might that look like for them?”

Levitt envisions the future of Gratz’s adult learning to follow the beit midrash model — a study space and community common in Orthodox spaces, but less so in other denominations. His goal is to cultivate a culture of community learning without reinventing Gratz’s structure and curriculum.

“Right now, it’s important to not lose sight that Gratz is already running quality adult education programs,” Levitt said. “And I want to maintain that quality while expanding the number of people engaging with them.”

Levitt will work alongside immediate past chair of Gratz’ executive board, chair of the communal education committee and professor of Jewish history Rabbi Lance Sussman. 

Gratz primarily serves as a graduate school in Jewish fields, and the college hired antisemitism scholar Ayal Feinberg as director of the cornerstone Center for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights. But the adult education program is a way for Gratz to connect with a broader demographic, according to Sussman. 

“I like to call it the face of Gratz College to the community,” he said. “It’s the place where the general community, Jewish community connects to Gratz College.”

Since the pandemic, Gratz’s course attendance has increased each year, from 120 in 2021 to 160 in 2022. According to Eleff, more than 200 people are enrolled in summer courses. About 1,000 people attend each online speaking event.

Gratz had a strong online presence long before COVID back in the internet’s early days, and the college has attracted a pluralistic Jewish audience through its online offerings. 

Founded in 1895, Gratz College was originally part of Mikveh Israel, created by the synagogue’s treasurer at the time, Hyman Gratz. Today, Mikveh Israel remains a trustee of Gratz College.

Daniel Cohen was a lifelong member of Mikveh Israel and served on the synagogue’s board and as president. While Cohen’s family was not Sefardic and hailed from Ukraine, Cohen and his brother became b’nai mitzvah at the synagogue. His parents met at the congregational Hebrew school at Gratz, then part of Mikveh Israel, and Cohen began his religious school education at age 5.

“He was a deep lover of Judaism and a lover of learning, really intellectually curious about all kinds of things,” son Jonathan Cohen said.

Cohen’s wife was equally committed to Jewish education. She was president of Mikveh Israel’s Women’s Association and a docent at the synagogue and was involved at the Hebrew Sunday School Society of Philadelphia, now the Hebrew Benevolent Society.

“She started studying at Gratz, too,” Jonathan Cohen said. “I remember her taking, in particular, Hebrew language that she would practice with us at home.”

Though the Cohens were involved in numerous Jewish organizations, their children believed that the couple’s devotion to Jewish education should reflect where their names are preserved. 

“We really have deep Gratz roots,” Jonathan Cohen said.

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