When Rhonda Lillianthal became its director six years ago, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School at JCC MetroWest was winding down after a five-year run and had a limited life expectancy.
The program for serious adult Jewish learning had attracted dozens of lifelong learners, but Lillianthal felt it could grow while cutting expenses if she took the school beyond the Cooperman JCC in West Orange, a beneficiary agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, and into the community.
The next year, a Melton course was also offered at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell.
“That was a big risk at the time,” Lillianthal said. “Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Agudath Israel agreed to be a site and teach for free — it was a whole new model. When I told other directors what I was doing, it was jaw-dropping.”
Nevertheless, the “whole new model” was adopted by communities around the country. And on Jan. 15 it earned Lillianthal the Florence Melton Award at the 17th annual International Melton Directors Conference in Los Angeles.
This annual award recognizes an outstanding Melton school with a committed director, a strong sponsoring agency, exceptional faculty, and a diverse student body. It carries a cash award of $500 for the winning school. (The award will be used toward scholarships for local Melton students.)
“Melton at JCC MetroWest has established itself as a global center of excellence,” said Melton international director Dr. Jonathan Mirvis in a prepared statement. “The achievements of the school under the leadership of director Rhonda Lillianthal now serve as a benchmark for our other Melton programs in the United States, Canada, the UK, and Australia.”
Participants in the Melton program begin with a two-year commitment to a two-hour class every week for 30 weeks each year. Curricula are developed and provided by the Melton Center’s headquarters at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
This year, units of the Melton program are being offered at the Cooperman JCC and Agudath Israel as well as at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains, Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph, and Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair.
Some 160 students are taking part.
‘It was transformational’
“Congregants like learning with their rabbis, and it helps build community within the synagogues,” said Lillianthal. “Especially at the larger synagogues, people just don’t get to spend that amount of time with their rabbis.”
Lillianthal credits the synagogues for buying into her idea, beginning with Silverstein. “Melton’s success in the MetroWest community is the result of collaboration with the congregational community,” she said. “None of it would have been possible without our dedicated rabbis and educators.”
Now she’s toying with moving into an even smaller setting — people’s homes. People want “cozy communal setups as opposed to big institutions,” she said.
Lillianthal’s passion stems in part from personal experience.
“I’m a product of adult Jewish education,” she said. “I started learning in my 20s, and it was transformational for me.”
Now, years later, the West Orange resident said, “Jewish learning has totally informed the way I’ve established my home life, my personal life, my social life.” She takes the pluralistic perspective of Melton to heart, and is a member of three congregations: B’nai Shalom, a Conservative congregation in West Orange; the Lubavitch Center in West Orange; and Congregation Etz Ahaim, an Orthodox/Sephardi synagogue in Highland Park.
“Rhonda Lillianthal has worked tirelessly to bring the best Melton experience to the MetroWest community,” said JCC MetroWest CEO Alan Feldman in a prepared statement. “She understands the value of adult Jewish learning and has assembled a faculty of exceptional quality and dedication reflecting the depth and breadth of Melton’s academic curriculum.”
Joyce Goldstein, cochair of the JCC MetroWest board of trustees, was with Lillianthal when she accepted her award.
Lillianthal is also the director of the JCC MetroWest Center for Jewish Life. She holds a master’s degree in Jewish studies from Touro College and in Jewish education from the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Lillianthal said she hopes to bring the same level of success to Foundations of Jewish Family Living, the new Melton program geared for parents of young children. “I want adults to learn when it can be transformative for the home they are building and the children they are raising,” she said. “This group is more stretched for time and the curriculum is designed to be less time-intensive.”