‘Everybody in the Room Wants to Be in the Room’

Ferne Fine acknowledges that she didn't have much of a formal Jewish education.

The 72-year-old no longer belongs to a synagogue, and admitted that most of her familiarity with things Jewish came from watching her three children become Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

Still, Fine, a graduate of La Salle University, said she's thirsty for Jewish learning — and not the dumbed-down kind either.

That's why Fine plans to participate in Me'ah, an adult Jewish-learning program that, while academically intensive in nature, doesn't presuppose a deep knowledge of Judaism.

The program, which will make its Philadelphia debut this fall, held two informational sessions in the area last week, allowing current students to meet with their prospective counterparts, like Fine, and for professors to engage community members in some sample lessons.

A "Taste of Me'ah" took place at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen; the second event was held at Society Hill Synagogue in Center City.

Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park will host another session June 26.

The concept of the program, according to presenters, is to immerse small groups of students — usually about 26 participants per class — in Jewish text and history for 100 hours over two years (the word "Me'ah" means "100" in Hebrew).

Classes are taught by university faculty members, and cover four different periods of Jewish history: biblical, rabbinic, medieval and the modern era.

Began in Boston

Me'ah, an initiative of the Boston-based Hebrew College, began in 1994 and now operates in 80 locations, including New York, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio and Rhode Island.

Proponents of the program say Me'ah brings the academic vigor and debate of a university setting to adults seeking an introduction to Jewish ideology.

The three Philadelphia-area courses slated for the fall — one to be held in Center City and two in the Bux-Mont region — will constitute the first Me'ah offerings in Pennsylvania.

The local programs have been made possible through a $42,000 grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; the cost to enroll is roughly $700 per pupil.

Speaking at Society Hill Synagogue, Moshe Margolin, the regional director of Hebrew College's New York office, attributed the growing success of Me'ah to its ability to fill a need within the Jewish community.

"Many of us have advanced degrees, but we stopped our Jewish education at Bar and Bat Mitzvah," he said. "So professionally, we're very well-accomplished, but Jewishly, we're lacking something in terms of knowledge."

Margolin said that he and his wife, Judith, are prime examples — though he holds a master's degree from Columbia University and she has a doctorate from Rutgers University, neither one of them had much proficiency in Judaism or Jewish history prior to Me'ah.

Now, after completing the program, Margolin said that they both feel much more adept Jewishly, and also tend to go to services more regularly.

Another benefit of Me'ah, according to Margolin, is the opportunity to meet and engage in dialogue with a wide mix of participants. Because the courses are open to individuals of all denominations — and even to non-Jews — Me'ah tends to attract people with a range of perspectives and backgrounds.

"The only common denominator is that everybody in the room wants to be in the room," said Margolin. "They want to take the time and find that Jewish learning on a serious level."

For Terry Novick, a Center City resident who belongs to Society Hill Synagogue, this was an exciting prospect.

"I'd really like to work with people in other congregations," said Novick, a lawyer in her early 50s. "Hopefully, together we can gain a comprehensive understanding of Judaism."



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here