Jewish education: Creating sacred space

Jewish education: Creating sacred space

Rhonda Lillianthal is the director of the JCC Center for Jewish Life. She has 20 years of experience as an adult Jewish educator.
Rhonda Lillianthal is the director of the JCC Center for Jewish Life. She has 20 years of experience as an adult Jewish educator.

MetroWest CARES, the Committee Addressing Resources for Eldercare Services, is coordinated by United Jewish Communities with support from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey; CARES brings together professionals and lay leaders from MetroWest agencies that provide services to older adults. This month’s article on the importance of Jewish education for adults is presented by the Jewish Community Center of MetroWest, which serves as a vital resource center for MetroWest Community residents from early childhood through older adults, including those with special needs. The JCC provides health & fitness, sports & recreation, aquatics, art, dance, theater, music, and social as well as Jewish education programming.

On any given day, I can open a variety of doors in my office building at the JCC in West Orange and find students from ages two to 102 learning ancient texts of the Torah. Words of wisdom from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) and other tracts are studied and imparted by our nursery school teachers, adult educators, senior site coordinators, and even our sports staff and recreation counselors.

Torah teachings are a part of every aspect of our Jewish Community Center. The same phenomenon is taking place at other Jewish centers and synagogues throughout MetroWest and beyond as the Jewish world reconnects to the wisdom of our sages: “Delve into it, for all is in it; see with it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing better.” (Pirkei Avot 5:21)

More interesting perhaps than the renewed emphasis of the JCC on Jewish education are the throngs of people who fill our classrooms and lecture halls. With all the competing forces for an individual’s time and money, what brings thousands of adults to Jewish education programs? The answers are as multi-faceted as the learners themselves. Some are searching for meaning in their lives, a pathway to spirituality. For others, it is an intellectual pursuit or a cultural connection. For many it is an opportunity to socialize.

Regardless of their motivation, those who commit to regular study reap rewards far beyond their expectations, for they have become part of a learning community. They have found a place to share ideas, thoughts, and feelings in a new way and on a deeper level than they have known before. In short, they have entered sacred space.

Sacred space can be defined in many ways. First and foremost, it must be a “safe” space — an adult learning environment that feels comfortable regardless of one’s educational background. A “safe” place is nondenominational, non-judgmental, and non-threatening, where one can bring questions, share insights, and explore Judaism.

With knowledge comes empowerment. Jewish learning, at any age, enables individuals to see the world from a new perspective. Ideas generated from classroom discussions spill over into day-to-day life and previously secular, mundane acts are transformed into meaningful Jewish experiences.

This transformational learning is not reserved for the young. It is accessible to anyone who chooses to engage in it. Many centuries ago, Rabbi Yose bar Yehudah taught that “one who learns Torah from the young, whom is he comparable to? To one who eats unripe grapes or drinks unfermented wine…one who learns Torah from the old, whom is he comparable to? To one who eats ripened grapes and drinks aged wine. (Pirkei Avot 5:21).

There are a wide variety of classes, lectures, panel discussions, and enrichment programs available to address a broad range of interests and time constraints. Our goal is to provide pathways to connect to Judaism and the Jewish community at every age and every stage of life. Following is a brief list of pathways to adult Jewish education opportunities in MetroWest:

• The Florence Melton Adult Mini-School is an innovative and engaging adult Jewish learning program that provides the opportunity to achieve deep, fundamental Jewish literacy in just two years. Classes meet for two hours per week for 30 weeks each year. The curriculum was developed and is overseen by scholars at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. For more information, contact Rhonda Lillianthal at or 973-530-3521.

• The Amelia & Ephraim Hirschhorn Senior Adult Jewish Education Program provides first-rate education and entertainment programs with an extensive list of Jewish educators, authors, artists, musicians, and comedians at 33 sites throughout the MetroWest Jewish community. Contact Lillianthal for information about how to become a Hirschhorn site and apply for programming,

• Rimon is a collaborative adult Jewish learning project that includes 50 synagogues and organizational partners in MetroWest. Its mission is to provide MetroWest residents with a year-round catalog of Jewish adult classes and programs. Visit or contact Michael Jay at or 973-530-3489.

• Center for Adult Jewish Life classes include many levels of Hebrew and Yiddish as well as Jewish history, philosophy, theology, Bible, and other topics. Visit or contact Michael Jay.

• Rosh Hodesh classes meet once a month from October through June at the JCC, providing a warm and cozy atmosphere for women to celebrate the new month and to learn together. Topics for discussion are chosen by the students with the educator. Contact Zakiyyah Palmer at or 973-530-3521.

• New Beginnings is a social group for widows and widowers ages 55+. It meets monthly at the JCC and provides insightful and fun Jewish educational and entertainment programs. Contact Lillianthal.

• The JCC and National Council for Jewish Women cosponsor the Life Long Learning Program. This program provides university-level educators who speak on a variety of topics including arts, history, literature, and music. The spring semester will begin in late March. For a brochure of courses, contact Sharon Gordon at or 973-530-3480.

Families and caregivers needing answers to broader eldercare questions can contact Elderlink at JFS — a portal to all MetroWest services for older adults and their families. Elderlink can be reached at 973-765-9050, ext. 511, or via email at

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