Over the course of four years, 27 adults in Harford County are aiming to complete 100 hours of Jewish learning.
Through the expansion of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, now housed at the Macks Center for Jewish Education, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, in Park Heights, members of Temple Adas Shalom, The Harford Jewish Center are joining more than 50 international Jewish communities for intensive text-based study.
Brett Temple of Abingdon sought out the class for two reasons. First, he is a trustee of adult education for Adas Shalom, and second, he desired to gain more in-depth knowledge about the faith he chose 17 years ago.
“At our temple there is a desire to understand why we do what we do,” he said of the Reform congregation. “We say this prayer every week, but where does it come from? Or, we say this prayer every day; why?”
A traditional Melton model takes place over two years, but through examining the schedules of the participants, organizers decided that a four-year model was a better fit for the Harford County community. The adult learners began meeting in October and will complete 13 two-hour sessions by May. The Adas Shalom class size is larger than a typical Melton class, but the participants were adamant about not dividing into smaller sections. They want to complete each step together.
Adas Shalom members didn’t have to look far to find a Melton instructor. Their very own Rabbi Gila Ruskin has been teaching Melton courses since the first year it was offered at Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville and estimates that she has taught every course offering, including graduate classes.
From 6:45 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. on the days the class meets, they study Rhythms of Jewish Living with Ron Mitnick, who comes from an Orthodox background. Following a short break, the class meets with Ruskin for another hour to study Purposes of Jewish Living.
Each lesson has a theme, Ruskin explained, from biblical to rabbinical, responsa literature to modern literature. The texts are pluralistic, and the instructors purposefully selected from different backgrounds and, when possible, different genders to give participants an all-encompassing view of Judaism.
“It’s a bit like drinking from a fire hose trying to filter down 5,000 years of tradition,” said Temple.
Karen Wolkow of Joppa agreed. She is a lifelong member of Adas Shalom, having just switched from her parents’ membership to her own, and loves to learn.
“If I could make a living by going to school that would be my career of choice,” she said. The course put her in a setting where she could listen to those more knowledgeable and offer her thoughts to those less so, a process she describes as fascinating.
One session that sticks out in her mind was a discussion focusing on Jewish symbols.
“We discussed why the mezuzah is mounted at an angle, and if it really should be. We discussed why the tallit has four corners and the importance of the blue threads. We discussed the menorah, with its various branches all coming together at the base, representing various branches of knowledge coming together to support us,” she said. “I never put much thought into some of the finer intricacies of these items.”
An anonymous donor offset the cost of the course, said Ruskin, so some participants were able to apply for scholarships, though everyone paid a minimum $100 fee to help cover the cost of the course materials and instructor salary.
Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace was the lone outpost of Jewish life in Harford County for a number of years. Temple refers to his home congregation as “Reform-Conserva-dox” because of the diverse mix of religious observance.
“We’re very welcoming. We have to be very welcoming,” said Temple. “We meet the needs of whoever comes to [our door].”
Harford Chabad in Bel Air opened a few years ago.
The course and discussion among members has sparked new ideas for adult learning in the community. Temple is working on a class tentatively titled, “I’d be honored, I just don’t know how” to teach bimah etiquette, such as when to open the ark and how to raise the Torah scroll.
Melton education director Rabbi David Bienenstock is not surprised by the participants’ reactions.
“A typical response is, ‘I want to show my children that Jewish learning doesn’t end’ or ‘I enjoy learning’ or ‘In the past I’ve only observed the High Holidays and I want to know more,’” said Bienenstock.
Throughout the course, Bienenstock observes the classes and gathers feedback from students. The universal response has been positive, he said, with students citing ample interaction and the instructors’ knowledge as reasons to continue on toward the 100-hour goal.
“[This class is important] because they want to be literate Jews. They want to feel that they’re on equal footing with Jews in Baltimore, Philadelphia or anywhere else,” said Ruskin. “In Harford County, you have to make the effort to have Jewish involvement, and I appreciate that people make the effort. It’s a wonderful community.”