Gene Hoffman’s academic career lends new meaning to the phrase “lifelong learning.”
After earning his master’s in Jewish studies from Gratz College in 2013, the 91-year-old decided to pursue his online doctorate in Jewish studies from Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.
“I don’t know if I’ll make it, but I’ll do my best,” he said.
Hoffman splits his time between Maplewood, New Jersey, and Palm Beach, Florida. He was raised Jewish, but was not engaged with the Jewish community as a young adult.
“I always was fairly interested in various religions and Judaism of course is the most important to me. I had a bar mitzvah and a Jewish wedding, I’m a Reform Jew, but I wasn’t active in the temple at all after my bar mitzvah,” he explained.
Hoffman graduated high school in 1946. He earned associate degrees from the University of Bridgeport and General Motors Institute in 1948 and 1950 before joining the Air Force.
His interest in religion, particularly religious education, surged after he completed his service in the Korean War.
“My thinking changed,” he said. “It made me think, what is it all about? What is it about religion that makes life so complicated?”
After his military service, Hoffman owned a BMW and Chevrolet dealership in Maplewood and enrolled at Seton Hall University part time in 1994. He completed a bach in religious studies in 1996.
He saw an advertisement for Gratz in “Reform Judaism Magazine” and signed up for the online master’s in religious studies in 2003. He was happy with the opportunities for discussion with fellow students and professors.
“I thought that was one of the highlights of class. Gratz was really one of the places that kept me going, because they’re such a great place. I wouldn’t want to change anything,” he said.
He recently donated $100,000 to the school.
“I had seen that he had made other gifts to similar institutions to support Jewish learning, and we began a conversation about how he could be a champion for Gratz,” said Naomi Housman, director of institutional advancement.
Hoffman has also donated to Birthright Israel, given scholarship funds to Hebrew Union College and started a free online program with the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers University.
His goal? To help younger generations engage with Judaism.
“The world is different today than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago, in terms of religion,” he said.
Hoffman hopes Gratz will use the funding to support students and get the word out about their programs.
“I want to give back. I hope it’s used for scholarship money, advertising money, money for educators, all the good things that good leadership will find. I wish people knew about it. The program is fabulous,” he said.
Rebecca Chabrow, director of enrollment management and recruitment, said since the school is online, many people simply don’t know what it is.
“We’re exploring different avenues to get the message out there. We already have the products; now we have the resources to show we have the products,” she said.
Housman said the funds will be used to provide financial support to students, bolster the school’s marketing and communication initiatives and boost alumni engagement. That includes revamping the website and increasing outreach.
She said Gratz is more relevant than ever now that all levels of learning have gone online.
Hoffman, meanwhile, will continue working toward his next degree.
“I love studying and I love learning,” he said.
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