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Community Beit Midrash

Posted on Dec 20, 2011

By Micah Peltz, Temple Beth Sholom, Cherry Hill, NJ

The Project:

A few years ago, my community in Cherry Hill had been trying to figure out how to provide higher-level Jewish learning to our congregants who were ready for it. In visiting my family in Minneapolis, I learned about its community Beit Midrash program, where Conservative synagogues joined together to provide learning sessions for adults. When I returned from Minneapolis, I decided to try the program here in Cherry Hill.

I first spoke with our local Schechter school, Kellman Brown Academy, and they agreed to host the program. They had just moved to a new location and were excited to have the opportunity to be a base for this type of community-based learning program. I met with all of the rabbis at Conservative synagogues in our area, and four others agreed to participate.

In our first year, we had 35 students in the class. For a topic, we choose to study Rambam’s Mishne Torah. Most students were members of our synagogues, but some were affiliated with Reform synagogues and Chabad as well. Our contingent of teachers included Steven Lindemann, Aaron Krupnick, Jeff Arnowitz, Gary Gans, and myself. It was a very successful first year.

For the second year of the program we chose to study Sefer Ha-Aggadah. In retrospect, I would not choose this text again. It is too expensive and bulky, and it didn’t attract as much interest as Rambam did. We had seven rabbis teach in the program (those mentioned above, with the addition of Moshe Schwartz and Noah Arnow), and it ran for 13 sessions. In the end, we only had 14 consistent students throughout the year. The students were interested and motivated, however, and the classes were fun to teach.

We are in the midst of planning for our third year of the program now. We will be studying sections of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man, with almost exactly the same contingent of teachers (Micah Liben joins the list; Jeff Arnowitz has moved on). Heschel seems to have struck a chord as we already have a number of RSVPs for the course. We are also planning on partnering with our local Jewish Educators Assembly to make this class free for educators in our community.

The Project’s Impact:

It has been a very positive program for those who want to learn at a higher level. A number of people from our synagogues were learning with Torah Links or Chabad. We sent them a message that says: “We do care about advanced learning, and we want to do it with you.”

It has showcased the different approaches, styles, and strengths of our colleagues in the area. It has been nice for the members of different synagogues to have the opportunity to learn with Conservative rabbis other than their own. 

Ongoing Challenges:

Getting the word out and engaging more people. We need to do a better job of encouraging those who are ready for learning at a higher-level (many of whom don’t acknowledge that yet) to come out and join us.

Choosing an inspiring and engaging topic. The drop in attendance and enthusiasm our second year was due in large part to the topic choice (Sefer Ha-Aggadah). We hope that our topic this year (Heschel’s theology) will be more successful in drawing the type of crowd we had our first year.

DIY (Do-it-Yourself) Tips:

Planning Logistics:

  • The first year, we charged each student $30 for the class. This covered Isadore Twersky’s A Maimonides Reader which was our core text, as well as some light refreshments. The second year we charged $50 to cover refreshments and a copy of Sefer Ha-Aggadah for each student. This year, with Heschel, we are again charging $30 for a copy of God in Search of Man and refreshments. We ordered all the books from Amazon.com, which had the best prices
  • We decided to run the program from the first Tuesday after Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in January through the last Tuesday before Pesah. This way, we did not need to worry about coordinating this program during the hectic holiday season, and it also gave us time to advertise.
  • The model of collaboration with colleagues, lay people, and local Conservative institutions (like a Schechter school) really worked for us.

The Text:

  • Each rabbi chose a section to teach, and then taught it differently. Some of us went back to the Talmud to teach the sources of Rambam’s work, and others went forward to modern Jewish philosophers to explain how it is viewed by contemporary Jewish thinkers. This was important in getting buy-in from colleagues. Since we all have our own styles and favorite topics, we needed to provide everyone with enough latitude to make their class sessions their own.
  • Choose a text around a personality or intriguing topic. Rambam worked because it is a name that people recognize and want to learn more about, and Isadore Twersky’s “A Maimonidies Reader” was readily accessible, affordable, and a good base text from which to work.

Sample Materials:

 

It is very important to me to provide not only entry-level Jewish learning but also high-level Jewish learning in our community. I am proud that we are able to do that – and especially that we are able to do that collaboratively.

 


 

Micah Peltz is in his fifth year as Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, NJ. He grew up in Minneapolis, where he was active in Emtza Region USY. He also spent 11 summers at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin as a camper, counselor, and Rosh Edah. Micah holds a B.A. from the University of Michigan, and also studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was ordained in May 2007 at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City, where he also received a Masters in Jewish Education from the William Davidson School of Education. While a student at JTS, he was the recipient of the Crown Fellowship, interned at Rutgers University Hillel and Park Avenue Synagogue, and spent a summer as a chaplain at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. He also received the Lamport Homiletics Prize at graduation. Micah is a board member for Mercaz USA and the American Zionist Movement.

Micah is married to Rachel Zivic, who works as the Learning Specialist & Literacy Coordinator at Kellman Brown Academy. They have two children Yael and Ari. True to his roots, he is still an avid Minnesota and University of Michigan sports fan.

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