Sandra Lilienthal doesn’t believe in labels — especially when it comes to Judaism.
“When people ask me, ‘What denomination are you?’ I say, ‘I’m a Jew,’ ” said the 51-year-old Coral Springs, Fla., resident who does describe herself as observant. “Labels have divided us so much. It has not been good for the Jewish community.”
Her refusal to put herself or others into any box made her a perfect candidate for a doctorate in Jewish education from Gratz College in Melrose Park, where she earned her diploma on May 18 after successfully defending her dissertation on meeting the needs of today’s adult learners.
“It’s important to respect all people, all the journeys,” said Lilienthal.
She is the second graduate of Gratz’s doctoral program in Jewish education — one of only five such programs in the nation. Its 26 students represent a microcosm of the Jewish community, from Modern Orthodox, Chasidic and Conservative to Reform, Reconstructionist and “Just Jewish.”
“Sandra excelled academically, but more than that, she lived out our mandate to the students to ‘take care of each other,’ ” said program director Saul Wachs, noting that Lilienthal invited other students to sit in on her dissertation defense to see the experience first-hand and also initiated a support group for those engaged in their culminating research.
Lilienthal has taught Jewish students from preschool on up over the past 25 years, but has concentrated on adult learners more recently. A native of Brazil, she has three teenage daughters and is married to a Reform rabbi, with whom she leads an independent chavurah.
While she and her children are Shomer Shabbat, her husband, Alejandro, is not. But they have worked out ways to respect each other’s observance. For example, her husband can turn off lights as long as he doesn’t touch the ones she leaves on.
“We understand that every Jew, regardless of his/her denomination, is a Jew who chooses how to observe Judaism. It all boils down to accepting each and every Jew where they are, and knowing that we can live with each other.”
It took her four years to complete the doctoral program, which consists of online coursework and a week on the Gratz campus every summer. “I had a real personal connection with Gratz, and I got to interact with other students from all over the world, all of us experimenting with new theses,” she said.
Outside her coursework, Lilienthal keeps more than busy teaching for the chavurah and working full-time at the Central Agency for Jewish Education in Broward and Palm Beach counties. She has developed a two-year “Pillars of Judaism” curriculum with 12-week modules focusing on traditions, holidays, beliefs and morality.
To earn her doctorate, Lilienthal conducted a survey, held interviews and ran a focus group to research what adults are seeking in Jewish education.
Today’s adult learners are different than two decades ago, she said, “we have a generation that did not grow up within the Jewish context of the grandmother baking in the kitchen.”
She said her learners tend to be intellectual professionals who put Jewish education on the back burner during their teens while they excelled in classes and activities that would get them into the best colleges.
“Now, they are looking for relevancy and connections to decide what being Jewish means to them,” she said.
Lilienthal will take on another teaching gig shortly when she joins Gratz’s adjunct faculty to teach a summer class in “Rhythms of Jewish Life: The Calendar and Life Cycle.”