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Designing the Adult Chair: Educators Teach the Grown-ups

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Squishing a 6-foot, 200-pound adult body into a kindergartner’s classroom chair doesn’t make for a very comfortable learning environment. So a Baltimore synagogue decided to do something about it.

Congregation Chizuk Amuno recently put the finishing touches on a special room just for adult education. Large and flooded with natural light, the room is decorated in a pleasing palette of plums, grays and blues, and is furnished with comfortable furniture designed for grown-up bodies.

Each solidly built chair has arms, as well as a seat and back padded with tapestry-like fabric.

Tables are designed to fit together in a circle, and to separate when pairs of adults study as a duo in the traditional Jewish learning model known as hevruta.

While Chizuk Amuno may be ahead of the curve in designing a special room for grown-up learners, it is not alone in developing new approaches and techniques to the burgeoning field of adult Jewish education. A whole new discipline, in fact, is evolving.

Judy Meltzer, director of adult learning at Chizuk Amuno, a Conservative congregation of 1,500 families, was hired two years ago as the synagogue’s first professional devoted to adult education.

The special room is designed to be as conducive to learning as possible, says Meltzer.

“There needs to be great respect for the comfort level of the adult learner who has come to learn what has been forgotten or never learned at all,” she says.

To further foster the growing attention to adult education, the Alliance for Adult Jewish Learning was created in March after those involved in the field gathered for a conference in Washington, D.C.

The new alliance anticipates bringing together professionals for an annual conference.

One aspect its members expect to plumb is in-service training for teachers of adult Jews.

One member of the alliance, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, is based in Jerusalem and as of this fall, is expected to provide courses for some 2,500 Jewish adults in 34 American communities.

In each city or town, Melton staff members help develop awareness among educators of pedagogical techniques, student-teacher relationships and the impact of education, according to Betsy Dolgin Katz, Melton’s North American director.

“We believe that teaching adults needs to become a profession,” says Dolgin Katz, who is chairing the new Alliance for Adult Jewish Learning.

Another area of concern is preparing rabbis and cantors to gear their teaching to adults.

“Most of the adult Jewish learning activities are led and taught by pulpit personnel, who have little if any training in this area,” says Paul Flexner, director of human resources development at JESNA, the Jewish Education Service of North America.

“If we want to make a difference, we need to somehow reach the rabbis, in particular, with new approaches on teaching adults, and to help them think about what their purposes are in the teaching and learning process,” he says.

In this area, in particular, Flexner believes, “we still have a long way to go.”

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