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Focus on Issues: in Growing Numbers, Jewish Adults Are Seeking to Fill a Knowledge Gap

From the outside, it looked like Kenneth Cohen had it all.

A founding executive of the software giant Oracle Corporation, Cohen worked for an innovative company in California’s Silicon Valley.

With a wife and young daughter at home, life should have felt complete. But something, Cohen says, was missing.

“It’s just inevitable that you say to yourself, `What do I want to pass on to this kid other than my stock certificates?’ I had to have a higher goal,” he says.

So in his mid-30s, Cohen began to pick up where his Bar Mitzvah had left off by taking a couple of courses through Lehrhaus, the Berkeley, Calif.-based provider of adult Jewish education.

One class led to another — from Bible to Hebrew to Jewish theology — and at age 40, Cohen retired from Oracle in order to pursue Jewish studies full time.

After earning a master’s degree in the field, today he is an expert on biblical history and one of Lehrhaus’ most popular teachers.

“Doing and receiving Jewish education is a remarkably rewarding thing,” says Cohen, who also serves as president of the school.

“It’s passing on not the latest hot computer chip, which will be obsolete next year, but taking the accumulated knowledge of humankind and perpetuating that, passing it on to new generations who will add their own insights and pass it on.”

Although Cohen’s journey from one career to another isn’t typical, his interest in studying Judaism as an adult reflects a dramatic new phenomenon in American Jewish life.

Synagogues have long offered adult education courses, most of them lasting a handful of sessions. Congregants were too busy, it was presumed, to commit to more.

But what’s happening now is turning that notion on its head: Non- denominational, independent institutions offering intensive adult Jewish education are being established across the country and are growing rapidly.

Suddenly, it seems, Jewish learning is sexy.

“It’s an awakening,” says Paul Flexner, director of human resources development and head of adult education at JESNA, the Jewish Education Service of North America, an agency that provides support to professionals in the field.

Thousands of adults many with children at home and long hours at work are making time each week to meet in synagogues, Jewish community centers or private facilities to participate in these classes.

Among the programs around the country to which they are flocking:

The Florence Melton Adult Mini-School program, based at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, is adding seven more American sites to its program in the fall, bringing the total to 34 locations. Each offers a two-year, 120-hour course of study to several groups of students at a time.

Boston’s Me’ah program, established four years ago with two classes, will have 20 sections this fall with 450 students committed to two years of study. Also, for the first time, Me’ah is branching out, taking the program to Cleveland and Stamford, Conn. Others cities have also expressed interest.

The Lehrhaus program has doubled its student body, to 4,000, in the past few years. Students choose from about 275 course offerings. Some are as short as one-day seminars, but others go on for 12 weeks.

“Beyond the Torah,” taught by Cohen, examines biblical writings and history. His student group of roughly 30 people has been meeting for three years.

The Jewish Community Centers Association is offering a course called “Derech Torah,” or “The Way of Torah,” in two dozen communities.

The American Jewish Committee last year started offering a course in 20 locations around the country.

Its class on “The Jews, God and Politics” has been going on for four years in Washington, where congressional aides, White House staffers and journalists participate.

A weekly study group in Los Angeles, sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation, attracts television writers and movie producers.

Denominational groups from the Orthodox Aish HaTorah to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, based in suburban Philadelphia, are offering similarly intensive courses.

Although programs differ in approach, one thing is consistent, say those involved: The majority of students are in their 30s, 40s and 50s; they are Jewish baby-boomers who are searching for meaning.

For many, formal Jewish education stopped the moment their Bar or Bat Mitzvah party ended, if they had any training at all. Many members of that generation have an acute awareness of how much they don’t know.

They are also realizing that they want to pass Judaism on to their children but, stunted by Jewish illiteracy, cannot.

“All of this language about `continuity’ is trickling down a little bit,” says Betsy Dolgin Katz, North American director of the Melton program. “People want to do something to see that Judaism continues.”

Another common thread among many of those enrolling is interfaith marriage.

The majority of those in the 20-week Introduction to Judaism course that Molly Ornati took in her Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood were involved in such relationships.

“Our generation thought that intermarriage” would not bring up religious conflicts, but with children “it crashes down around you how serious it is,” says Ornati.

Her husband-to-be, Thomas Zimny, was raised a Catholic but was interested in having their son, 4-year-old Hunter, raised as a Jew. Ornati thought she didn’t know enough about her own heritage to be able to make that commitment.

Coming from “a highly assimilated family,” Ornati says, she had “a sentimental attachment to Judaism with a vague sense of moral and political values. I wanted to gain a real knowledge of the literature and of specific notions of God and faith.”

Her class was led by a Reform rabbi, held in Conservative synagogue, and sponsored by the Brownstone Brooklyn Jewish Coalition, a consortium of liberal synagogues and havurot in the area.

The newest twist in the trend of adult education is an effort to bring Jewish education to the workplace.

Melton is hoping to start up its course in September at the massive Microsoft campus in suburban Seattle, where there are some 13,000 employees, roughly 10 percent of whom are Jewish.

Similarly, Lehrhaus plans to offer Jewish learning on-site at computer firms in the Silicon Valley.

The goal, organizers say, is to reach people in their 20s, the population that is currently proving the most elusive to educators.

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