"If a group of highly educated Jews are assembled in a room and are asked to name two Shakespeare plays, the answer is readily supplied," said Jay Minkoff. "On the other hand, ask them who Maimonides or Rambam was, and the reply may not come so easily."
This is not an uncommon scenario among adult Jews in Greater Philadelphia, said Minkoff, co-chair with Mark Fishman of the Adult Education and Outreach Task Force of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Jewish Life and Learning.
Federation is working to change that scenario by developing programs that deepen adults' connection to and knowledge of Jewish traditions, history and texts, and engaging them through outreach activities.
"For the majority of Jews in the community, Jewish education ceased following their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or after Hebrew high school," said center director Adam Kessler. "We find that many are surprised to learn that Jewish study can act as a guide for people in ways that enable them to lead more meaningful, richer lives."
The task force focuses on adults with children who are school-age or younger, because they can potentially have the greatest impact on this population.
According to Rabbi Bonnie Goldberg, the center's senior planner for Jewish enrichment, "We want to dramatically impact the next generation." She went on to describe a pilot program to be launched this fall in the Bux-Mont area and on the Main Line. The goal of the new parent-education program, "Teach Your Children Well," developed in conjunction with Gratz College and Hebrew University's Melton Program, is to connect with parents of young children who have expressed frustration with being "Jewishly uninformed."
Two existing center programs have been successful because their topics are relevant, and the formats fit with people's lifestyles, added Goldberg.
The "Kallah" - or "Night of Jewish Learning" - took place at several suburban locations on a Saturday evening in February. Offering classes taught by rabbis and scholars, the event satiated a thirst for both knowledge and socializing.
A "Taste of Judaism: Are You Curious?" - offered throughout Center City over a period of months and modeled after a Reform movement program - is an ideal entree to explore Jewish issues, explained Goldberg. "It has also been valuable for interfaith couples or those contemplating conversion to Judaism."
Kessler described Federation's new approach of working with synagogues and Jewish organizations through kehillot, or neighborhood collaboratives, as a significant change: "We are no longer doing outreach from our desks in one central location. We are hiring professionals to work from the kehillot at the local level. We will not simply create programs and sit back; now, we will work with community members one on one by directing them to programs that best meet their needs."
Sharing his personal perspective, Minkoff said that when his 11-year-old daughter, Naomi, attended Jewish day school four years ago, she would come home asking questions about Judaism that he couldn't answer.
"I wanted to learn with her so I went out and acquired such knowledge, but it wasn't readily accessible," he said. "I observed that others also had a thirst to learn, but there wasn't a centralized place for adult education. Federation is changing that and is bringing classes and programs to the community."
"We have made a commitment to succeed," added Kessler. "Future generations are depending upon it."
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