Brandeis historian and professor Jonathan Sarna set the wheels in motion when he suggested that the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) create a course about the Jewish experience in America.
Eighteen months later, that idea has become the interactive course, “To Be a Jew in the Free World: Jewish Identity through the Lens of Modern History,” a more global look at Judaism’s confrontation with freedom in the modern age. This latest six-week offering from JLI, which is the education arm of Chabad Lubavitch, begins the week of February 5 in more than 350 locations and 25 countries.
In Orange County, five Chabad locations will offer the course at various days and times.
Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, explained how the course evolved. “I had suggested some time ago that as more and more American Jews are native-born, it was important for them to begin to think about the Jewish experience in America,” he said. But because people from many countries take JLI classes, it clearly wasn’t appropriate to focus on American Jews alone. Thus, the class transformed into an investigation of Judaism’s confrontation with freedom globally. It explores six historical episodes from around the world, ranging from Jews’ dealings with Napoleon Bonaparte to Menasseh ben Israel’s crusade to readmit the Jews who had been expelled from England centuries earlier.
“Some courses are about information. This course is about life,” said Rabbi Aaron Herman, editor of “To Be a Jew in the Free World” and the principal at Tzohar Seminary. “We’re looking at six different episodes or vignettes that are good examples of questions people still wrestle with today. It’s the modern world that we’re discussing. It gives us the opportunity to examine our place in the world at this time.”
Sarna agreed. “I hope this course is going to trigger important conversations among students, because I think these are issues Jews around the world are thinking about,” he said. “ These are day-to-day issues that people confront in their own lives.”
JLI’s mission is to teach a Jewish tradition that is relevant to the here and now. In fact, many of the courses are accredited for continuing medical and legal education. The multimedia classes are designed to include not only lectures but also learning activities, active discussions and an emotional aspect that draws the student in on a personal level.
“If we do not make Jewish scholarship and literacy relevant to young minds, we’re failing them,” asserts Rabbi Efraim Mintz, executive director of JLI. He points to the recent and controversial Pew research study, “A Portrait of Jews in America,” which indicates that Jews today are less engaged in Jewish life.
Mintz views the Pew study as a positive challenge. “To me, the Pew study is an opportunity to … shake up the foundation of the Jewish community. It is an opportunity to reconnect to what we know works, to inspire minds and hearts – not to water down the Judaism that has kept the Jewish people alive.”
The courses aren’t limited to an Orthodox perspective, he noted. “This is ancient Jewish wisdom from the Bible, the Midrash, the Talmud – age-old wisdom that is as relevant today as it ever was.”
Marilyn Wasserman is an enthusiastic student. Although a Reform Jew, she finds the courses insightful and engaging. Persuaded by her husband, the first course she attended was “From Sinai to Cyberspace.”
Says Wasserman, “I was absolutely fascinated at the first session by what was being taught and how it was being taught.
“It’s wonderfully set up. You get a bound book with an introduction and additional readings at the end of each chapter.” The readings include insights from classical Jewish as well as secular sources. The courses also employ videos and other audiovisual elements. “There is always something on the screen,” Wasserman said. She compared JLI offerings favorably with courses the Osher Lifelong Living Institute offers at California State University, Fullerton.
Rabbi David Eliezrie of North County Chabad Center in Yorba Linda is proud to be an instructor for JLI. “We’ve gotten a reputation for excellence in adult Jewish learning,” he says. “We have textbooks, PowerPoints and teacher training. We’ve taken Jewish adult education to a whole different level.”
Eve Gumpel is an Orange County freelance writer and editor. Find her at www.evegumpel.com.