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Survey Shows Me’ah Program is Teaching Jewish Adults Well

June 10, 2005
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A Jewish adult education program is bearing fruit, according to a new survey. And now Me’ah — an intensive, two-year Jewish adult education program marking its 10th year — is spreading from Boston across the country.

The name of the program, which means 100 in Hebrew, refers to the roughly 100 hours of study time participants spend over the two-year cycle.

Me’ah, which began in 1994 with 50 students in Greater Boston, now is offered in Baltimore, Cleveland, Rhode Island, Florida, New Jersey and New York, where the number of classes will grow from eight to 20 next September.

In separate conversations about Me’ah, its visionary creators, David Gordis, president of Hebrew College, and Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, sum up the key to the program’s success in three words: quality, quality, quality.

Location is a close second, as the program is held conveniently in neighborhood synagogues and Jewish community centers.

Gordis and Shrage are touting the results of a recently released survey of Me’ah’s Boston-area graduates, who are turning up in record-high numbers in leadership positions in their synagogues; some even started a Jewish day school.

Nearly two-thirds of the graduates say the program had a major or moderate impact on their involvement in Jewish communal life. Close to half report increasing their charitable giving to their synagogues and other Jewish causes.

“When we go around the country, we can now show how this does affect the community in terms of leadership roles in synagogues, in schools and in philanthropic giving,” Gordis said in a recent interview. “All these are enhanced. It’s that intersection between personal growth and change.”

“This is the right moment in Jewish history because there’s a huge longing for spirituality, community and a serious engagement with Judaism,” Shrage said. “I believe adult education is up there with day schools as transformational opportunities.”

The survey results excited Allen Katzoff, who directs Hebrew College’s Center for Adult Jewish Learning and who was responsible for the survey.

Katzoff said the results, with their implications for Jewish leadership and knowledge, weren’t surprising.

But “we didn’t know the magnitude,” he said. “This is the first time we have the hard data of the significant impact Me’ah has had on communities. The investment pays off with tremendous dividends. That’s what we learned.”

Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, said he admires the Me’ah program but would like to see a more sophisticated evaluation.

While there’s nothing wrong with internal surveys, he said, “One of the weaknesses of evaluation studies in the American Jewish community is that we don’t have a sophisticated mechanism by outside neutral observers that would carry more weight.”

Wertheimer, who has written widely about contemporary American Jewish life, has not seen the Hebrew College survey results.

On the positive side, he said, Me’ah’s rigor and neutrality are appealing to a broad range of the American Jewish population. Wertheimer also applauded Me’ah’s approach of tapping the resources of Jewish scholars for the benefit of the broader community, and its transdenominational approach, which is similar to the Melton and Wexner Heritage adult Jewish education programs, he said.

“The down side,” he said, “is that it may be too neutral and not sufficiently prescriptive to encourage involvement.”

Me’ah is one response to the controversial National Jewish Population Survey published in 1990, which alarmed the community about the long-term affects of assimilation.

“We were dealing with a population of people who by and large have been exposed to quality higher education and had become accustomed within their Jewish connections to be satisfied with mediocrity,” Gordis recalled.

Comparing the quality in secular education with Jewish education, Shrage quipped, “The passion for Shakespeare does not carry over to Maimonides.”

Their prescription was a high-quality, academic level curriculum taught by college-level professors during a two-year course of study using Jewish texts.

“We’re bringing the university to the synagogue,” said Richard Feczko, Me’ah’s national director. “It changes the relationship because it brings together elements of the Jewish community that normally don’t come together.”

Tuition runs about $1,200 for each student, about half of which is covered through subsidies from sponsoring Jewish federations.

If Me’ah sounds like an obvious solution now, there was nothing that fit the bill when the program was launched, Gordis and Shrage both explained. Other adult Jewish learning either was episodic or was higher-level learning aimed at a small cadre of synagogue leaders.

“Me’ah begins the exploration at an extremely high level,” Shrage said. “You have the chance to change the zeitgeist.”

Terry Rosenberg heard Shrage’s motivational speech about Me’ah about nine years ago when her synagogue, Beth Elohim in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, was looking to revitalize its synagogue life.

“It was five minutes that changed my life,” Rosenberg said.

Shrage prodded the group, Rosenberg recalled vividly: “‘How come you have no problem if I asked you to distinguish between a Rembrandt and a Monet, but you’re not embarrassed that you don’t know about Rashi or Maimonides?’ “

Rosenberg was so inspired that she organized a Me’ah class for Beth Elohim. In its first year, 1997, it attracted 50 members, who were divided into two classes.

Many of the Beth Elohim graduates now are active leaders in the synagogue. Rosenberg has worked her way up through leadership positions at CJP, and now co-chairs the organization’s committee on Jewish continuity and education, which is the funding source for Me’ah.

Rosenberg says Me’ah fulfills both community and personal needs.

“They were there to find personal meaning and connection with a religion they were culturally connected to, but not necessarily religiously connected to,” she said. “We realized that we wanted a Jewish identity which meant more than bagels and lox and High Holiday services.”

Richard Pzena could easily be the poster face for Me’ah: After he heard from a friend who works at Hebrew College that Me’ah might be expanding beyond the Boston area, he organized a group in his synagogue, Temple Sinai, in Summit, N.J.

“It struck a chord with a lot of people. You create bonds with your classmates and really learn on an academic level. Most of us went to Hebrew school, which was like pediatric Judaism,” he said.

Eighteen people enrolled in the first two-year class. By the time they held an open house for the second class, 25 people signed up.

Pzena, 46, who runs a small money management firm, caught the Me’ah bug. Post-Me’ah, he’s a member of his synagogue board, is on the investment committee of the United Jewish Appeal and now sits on Me’ah’s advisory board.

“If you look at our group of synagogue leaders, there’s a lot of overlap with Me’ah graduates,” Pzena said. “Some were already involved, but others had a desire to be involved and saw Me’ah as an entree.”

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