Gratz College Celebrates 125 Years, Focus Now Online

 The Gratz College graduating class of 1917
The Gratz College graduating class of 1917 (Courtesy of Gratz College Archive)

Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath didn’t want to drop what she was doing to go to graduate school for education.

As a Jewish educator, then in Washington, D.C., she needed to find a way to earn her Ed.D. without giving up the chance to actually teach on a day-to-day basis. She wanted a program that didn’t just teach her how to be a better educator, but one that would allow her to become a better Jewish educator.

Three years later, now living in the Cleveland area, she’s finishing her graduate degree at Gratz College. Learning exclusively online, she’s been able to have everything she’d set her sights on, educationally and professionally.

The typical student of Gratz College, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, has changed. That student once lived in the Philadelphia area and was almost certainly Jewish; if they weren’t young immigrants, they were the children and grandchildren of such people. They were there to learn Hebrew language and Jewish studies, as both subjects were still rare finds at mainstream colleges and universities. They were probably going to become teachers themselves.

But as Gratz has transitioned to a primarily online institution, a process that began in 2001 and continues to this day, the student base has also changed. Today, though still likely to be Jewish, the typical student is almost certainly not within commutable distance of Philadelphia, according to Paul Finkelman, president of the college. They’re not necessarily in the U.S. at all, he said, noting that Gratz counts learners from Turkey and Vietnam in its graduate student body. They’re probably adults who already have a job, usually in education, and are pursuing a graduate degree on the side.

So, how did that happen? How did a school that began as four basement rooms at Congregation Mikveh Israel turn into a global online center for graduate study?

By the ’90s, according to Finkelman, it was clear that Gratz would need to change to remain essential. Relocating alongside Philadelphia’s Jews, from those basement rooms in Old City to Congregation Rodeph Shalom to Melrose Park, Gratz’s offerings for students of all ages became more widely available from other sources (though programs like Jewish Community High School remained popular). Mainstream colleges and universities came to frequently offer degrees in Hebrew and Jewish studies and, suddenly, Gratz’s unique appeal was a little less, well, unique.

In the spring of 2001, Gratz began experimenting with online education. Ruth Sandberg, the Leonard and Ethel Landau Professor of Rabbinics at Gratz College, and director of the BA in Jewish Studies and Jewish Professional Studies and MA in Interfaith Leadership, taught the first online class at Gratz: Essential Rabbinic Belief. Sandberg had five students to start.

This was not a universally welcomed decision among the faculty, Sandberg said. Some professors didn’t believe that there was a suitable substitute for classroom discussion, and felt online education couldn’t approach the academic rigor of in-person instruction. Nobody was too keen on the idea of talking into a computer screen for lectures that were over an hour long. Sandberg, however, had always been intrigued by the possibilities of the application of new technologies in education.

The technology was not what it is today. Without Zoom or other videoconferencing tools, Sandberg would type up questions, provide readings and then create a space for the students to leave comments on a shared message board. There, they’d Talmudically annotate and respond to one another, comments building on comments. It took some adjustment, Sandberg said, but she was hooked.

“After I taught that first course, I realized what the potential was for reaching people, especially people in areas where there was very little opportunity for them to get either an undergraduate degree, or certainly not an advanced degree, in some areas in Jewish studies,” Sandberg said.

The key to the early successes of the online program, both Sandberg and Finkelman said, came down to the decision to use asynchronous educational techniques, rather than synchronous. Students, who may have jobs and families, or may simply live in a different time zone, could watch lectures at their leisure, rather than attend a one-sided livestreamed lecture.

“What we found over time as we experienced more online teaching was that because we have an entire week to discuss a particular topic, it actually allows for more engagement among the students,” Sandberg said.

The staff of Gratz College, celebrating the 125th anniversary of the school’s founding
The staff of Gratz College, celebrating the 125th anniversary of the school’s founding (Courtesy of Gratz College)

By the 2005-2006 school year, Gratz began to offer online degree programs to students. In the years since, as many more students of different backgrounds were reached, administrators and faculty recognized the need for a greater diversity of offerings. Today, in addition to its Jewish areas of study, Gratz offers master’s programs in nonprofit management, as well as camp administration and leadership. It also confers doctorates in education in leadership. Of Gratz’s 400 or so degree-seeking students, 98% of them, by Finkelman’s estimate, learn exclusively online.

The Holocaust and Genocide Studies doctoral program is a particular point of pride. Though also taught online, it brings students from across the country to the college for a week in the summer for graduate seminars.

Alexandra Rudolph is a single mom and high school history teacher in her first year of Ph.D. study at Gratz, taking classes from her Augusta, Georgia, home. Though she isn’t Jewish, she learned the importance of preserving the memory of the Holocaust from a young age.

To be able to take the classes on her own time, she said, “means the world to me.”

David Cotter knows what she’s talking about. The retired Army colonel is the final stages of his own Ph.D. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Gratz, and he hopes to put what he’s learned to good use at work — leading the department of military history at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. It’s important to educate the officers who study there on the subject; they may encounter genocidal activities in the course of deployment, Cotter said, as he did during his time in Iraq.

“These folks clearly knew how to do distance education,” Cotter said of Gratz.

Though Gratz had a gala planned this week to celebrate its 125 years, it has been postponed due to the pandemic. It will be held instead in December.

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  1. Fascinating story this is about the progress of an institution deserving praise on many levels.
    Back in the early 1950’s I started out in Gratz as a six year old student in the school of observation
    and practice up to high school. While attending Cheltenham High School, I later continued to commute
    to Gratz before finally leaving Philadelphia for college.

    Such fine teachers inspired me at Gratz. Of all these stars the brightest and most brilliant and inspiring of all was Dr. Samuel Tobias Lachs. He pointed me in a direction to learn and respect Torah and our rich Jewish Heritage as did my dear father, Dr. David N. Greenwood and mother, Emma M. Greenwood.


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