When do we recite the Sh’ma in the evening?” Sixteen people sat around the table considering the question and discussion that open the Babylonian Talmud.
The Sept. 21 study session at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange also marked the opening of a new two-year adult learning program for all denominations offered through the Jewish Theological Seminary.
The course, known as Context, represents an effort by the Conservative institution to combine rigorous adult learning with outreach to communities beyond its headquarters in upper Manhattan.
“It is valuable and important to help JTS extend its reach into suburban Jewish communities,” said Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom, one of four area synagogues that sponsored the evening. “I also think serious Jewish study for adults is a critical thing to aspire to and should be a priority.
“If we are going to be effective transmitters of our heritage, we have to invest in our own Jewish identity and Jewish learning,” he said. “It is not enough to say ‘I want to enable my child to have a Jewish identity.’ We have to actively develop our own.”
The curriculum had its pilot year during 2010-11, with five classes taught in New York, New Jersey, and the Washington, DC, area. This year, JTS is seeking to expand to eight-10 sites, including Chicago and Connecticut.
Informational sessions like the “taste of Context” held at Oheb Shalom are being run now in these areas. A four-session “try-out” was held at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston last spring.
Beginning in October, classes will meet once a week for three hours, for 16 weeks per year. The cost is $750. Classes are conducted in English, and participants are expected to do assigned reading between classes.
Rabbi Moshe Margolin, who conceived the project and is the senior director of the Institute for Jewish Learning at JTS, said it heeded a call by Arnold Eisen, who was appointed JTS chancellor in 2007 with a promise of change.
“It is a huge departure for JTS to reach out into the community in this way,” said Margolin. “One of the elements of Chancellor Arnold Eisen’s vision for ‘the new JTS’ is to have it serve ‘the vital center’ of the Jewish community,” Margolin said.
The curriculum covers the Bible and rabbinic texts in the first year, and Jews in the medieval world and post-Enlightenment era in the second year.
Locally, Context’s biggest competition is the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, based at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange, which also offers a two-year program of rigorous adult Jewish education.
The biggest difference, according to Margolin and Rhonda Lillianthal, who directs the Melton school locally, is Context’s “academic approach.” That means students are expected to do assigned reading between classes, and the focus is narrower and more in-depth. Melton focuses on a broader study of Judaism and core Jewish values.
And whereas Melton follows a standard curriculum created by scholars at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and its classes are taught by Melton-trained instructors, Context uses university professors, and the syllabus varies from instructor to instructor based on the professor’s particular areas of expertise and interest. “The academic approach colors everything — what we teach, how we teach it, and the expectations we have of students,” Margolin said.
The Talmud class at Oheb Shalom was led by Rabbi Michael Chernick, who holds the Deutsch Family Chair in Jewish Jurisprudence and Social Justice at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
He led participants through the Talmud discussion, seeking out the subtext of the sages’ debate and digressions over the nature of time and how to distinguish between night and day.
“Underneath the conversation there is more going on,” he said. “There is something encrypted here.”
Eventually, participants grasped Chernick’s suggestion that the real talmudic debate has to do with the question of whose clock is more important — God’s clock, as laid out in the Creation story, or the human clock, determined by human authority.
“Within the rabbinic tradition,” said Chernick, “is the notion that God has given human beings the power to make a determination of what time is.”
Participants were invited to this month’s “taste” of Context from four sponsoring synagogues: Congregation Beth El, Oheb Shalom Congregation, and Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, all in South Orange, and Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn.
In order to run, courses require a minimum of 22 registered participants. For more information, contact Margolin at email@example.com.