At Beth El Congregation of Baltimore in Pikesville, learning does not stop once a congregant ages out of Hebrew school. The synagogue offers an adult-education program with 95 different classes for congregants to expand their horizons.
The program was started by the congregation’s former Rabbi Mark Loeb, who was invested in the idea and wanted to create an educational environment for congregants of all ages. To that end, the Rabbi Mark G. Loeb Center for Lifelong Learning at Beth El was established in his memory. While some of the programming is based in Judaism, other classes are more secular, and non-congregants are welcome to attend.
“The synagogue has always tried to offer educational opportunities for congregants and non-congregants,” says Dr. Neil Goldberg, co-chair of the Rabbi Loeb Center’s education committee.
The center is currently headed by director of education Dr. Eyal Bor, with Goldberg and Sisterhood member Marcia Boonshaft serving as co-chairs. “A lot of people belong to other synagogues or don’t belong to any synagogue, but are still welcome to take part in our activities.”
Some of the activities offered include various forms of art such as drawing, painting and sculpting; games like canasta and mahjong; and more serious subjects like philosophy and history. Goldberg notes that the center’s art history and music classes are especially popular.
“There are some things you study in high school that, when you’re older, you’re prepared to delve into more deeply,” states Goldberg. “It’s like a second chance for adults to learn more about things that were sort of spoon-fed to them when they were young.”
Boonshaft has been taking a class on short stories for about five to six years, with the program having moved to Zoom as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. She says that some of Beth El’s adult-education offerings are conducted remotely, while others take place in-person at the synagogue.
“I think we’re having an awakening; people are coming back in person,” she says. “But some have really loved being on Zoom. It changes things.”
Boonshaft cites a particular program on death and dying with dignity that saw several hundred attendees from all over the country due to the fact that it was held online.
‘A more personal element’
One challenge the committee faces and wants to overcome is the seemingly lackluster interest on behalf of younger adult congregants.
Current attendees for Beth El’s classes skew older, and the committee is looking into ways in which they can get other members involved.
Goldberg notes the challenge of their having less time on their hands than retirees do, so it’s important that classes accommodate busy schedules.
One approach that they are trying is holding classes that run concurrently with their Hebrew school, giving parents something to do while their children are in class. “When you take your kids to Sunday school and pick them up, there’s two hours in between that,” says Goldberg. “What can you do with that two-hour time block? Those are the kinds of questions we approach.”
Goldberg notes that his perspective on Jewish education came from his experiences with Hebrew school as a child, which he says were less than ideal.
“It was a complete waste of time. We didn’t learn anything until we got to be 12 or 13,” he recalls. “As adults, we now discuss things like ‘What does religion even mean?’ and ‘What is the impact of religion on one’s life?’ ” — topics, he said, that are more challenging and ripe for discussion,
Some of the classes are also held by rabbis. “In-person classes have a more personal element,” says Boonshaft. “It’s one thing to see a rabbi on the bimah. But here, you see the rabbi across the room. It’s exciting!”
All adult-education classes are compiled in a guide on the synagogue’s website. While they are free to attend, donations are appreciated.