The Mount Airy-based rabbinical school has its largest incoming class in school history.
California students call in at breakfast. East Coast students sign on during lunch. European students check in at dinner. Israeli students log in at night. Some even chat at 2:30 in the morning.
The ALEPH Ordination Program is not like any other rabbinical school or seminary. The program teaches people from all over the country and the world. And this year, the school will be teaching more students than ever.
Twenty-five people will join the program this fall, the largest incoming class in ALEPH’s history — and each and every student will attend classes from the comfort of their computer screens.
The program is mainly online, with a handful of required retreats held in the United States several times a year. Students can choose from four different Jewish renewal paths to study: rabbinic, cantorial, spiritual direction or rabbinic pastor.
Unlike other online learning programs where students simply sign in on their own time, ALEPH’s courses are taught in a tele-conference format in which all students can interactively discuss, question and learn together. The professor can see each student’s face on the screen, so there’s no place to hide.
“You can probably hide better in a big lecture hall,” said Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin, executive director of the program, which has its headquarters in Mount Airy. “It really represents the next level of online learning.”
With a decrease in synagogue affiliations, Schechter-Shaffin has seen a rise in the amount of people getting more involved with Jewish leadership. Simultaneously, she’s also discovered more acceptance with the idea of online learning.
Online learning makes it easier for the student. It’s generally more affordable — ALEPH tuition is around $12,000 to $15,000 a year, though tuition at other well-known rabbinical schools is not too far off. The Jewish Theological Seminary, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Rabbinical Seminary of America cost on average $14,200, $18,500 and $8,000 respectively, though those numbers do not include other expenses like housing or books, according to The Princeton Review.
Even though everyone communicates in cyberspace, she said, students and faculty still form real connections and relationships.
Although face-to-virtual-face classes are required, students can still work at their own pace. Some take one class per semester, while others take four. Students usually complete the program in six years.
“You’re ordained when you’re ready to be ordained,” she said.
Finding the best rabbinical school for a student can be just like searching for a shidduch; Schechter-Shaffin said it has to be a good match.
To help students through their spiritual journey, each one is paired with a director of studies or mentor who guides them through their work and spirituality.
The program usually has about 15 new students each year, totaling close to 100 altogether. They range in age from 22 to 80, with a third of the students being male and two-thirds female. This year’s class includes students from the United States, Brazil, Israel and Uganda.
Schechter-Shaffin said more people joined this program because they want to expand their academic backgrounds. The majority of students have some sort of bachelor’s degree, usually in Jewish studies.
“That adds a real richness to the classes, to have people of all different walks and stages of life,” she said.
The ordination program follows the precepts of the Jewish Renewal movement. There is an emphasis on spirituality and making prayer personal.
Schechter-Shaffin said Jewish Renewal is sometimes referred to as Neo-Chasidic because of its Chasidic roots, but the movement is also egalitarian, open-minded, interfaith friendly and LGBT-friendly.
Jewish Renewal is a trans-denominational movement in which every rabbi or leader ordained through the program chooses what they identify with. Some serve Reform, Conservative or even unaffiliated congregations, which Schechter-Shaffin said she’s noticed more people leaning toward.
She said labels don’t matter to this next generation, with many people identifying as “just Jewish,” though they still embrace feeling spiritual and religious.
Marcia Prager described Jewish Renewal as a “panoramic view of contemporary Judaism.”
Prager has been the dean and director of the program since 1990. She teaches a few of the core classes focusing on the life cycle and davenology, the study of the spirituality of davening.
She is also a rabbi at P’nai Or, a Jewish Renewal congregation in West Mount Airy.
Prager discovered more people over the years who wanted to be trained and ordained, and ALEPH gives them the flexibility to do so in an “organized, rigorous, adventurous, liberal seminary.”
Rather than just living with what Prager called “a schmear of Judaism,” Jewish Renewal embraces all aspects of Jewish expression for the body, mind, spirit and soul.
“For me personally, Jewish Renewal as an approach to Jewish life has offered us a way to blend tradition and innovation, to bring artistry, creativity, engagement, joy, passion, embodiment, to all the forms of Jewish expression that make up Jewish life,” she said.
According to Prager, this incoming class is comprised of a generation of students who are passionate about learning and committed to making a contribution to the world for the future of Jewish legacy, and students are attracted to what she called the “heart-centered” learning style of the program.
“In order for people to be caring, they need to be cared about,” she said. “In order for people to be loving, they need to be loved. We need to create educational environments in which people are nurtured.”
She added that students must not only be masters of text but of heart and soul, which is why they choose to study with ALEPH.
Shadrach Mugoya stumbled upon ALEPH’s program all the way from his rural village in Namutumba, Uganda. The 27-year-old Abayudaya Jew — a community in Uganda that practices Judaism — is currently the de facto religious leader of his approximately 350-person synagogue, but he wants to become officially ordained.
The village has one ordained rabbi, but Mugoya wants to be able to know more about Judaism and fully lead his community in the future.
Additionally, the Abayudaya community has one fully ordained rabbi, but he lives closer to Mbale, about 45 miles from Namutumba. Mugoya said that rabbi can’t serve all eight synagogues in the area, and there is an ever-increasing need for more religious leaders in the area.
He created a GoFundMe page to raise money for his education. So far, online donors have contributed more than $2,500.
Mugoya’s village goes without running water, electricity or Internet. He takes an hourlong bus ride to the nearby town of Mbale to attend his virtual classes at an Internet café, which is about 140 miles away from Kampala, Uganda’s capital.
Mugoya traveled even further in July to attend one of ALEPH’s retreats in Philadelphia — his first voyage outside of Uganda.
Whether online or in person, Mugoya is clear about what compelled him to travel across thousands of miles and seven time zones in pursuit of becoming a rabbi. “I hope that while studying at ALEPH, I will be able to create a new beginning in this long-term pursuit of leading my community spiritually,” Mugoya wrote in an email.
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