Adult Jewish Learning: Modeling Risk and Growth

Leslie Pugach

First, some background. As a fourth generation American, I grew up in an extended family, particularly on my mother’s side, that was extremely active in the secular aspects of Jewish life in the greater Philadelphia area. My maternal grandparents made certain that my mother was extremely well educated, both Jewishly and secularly, even at a time when girls were often not given that opportunity. On Shabbat, their kosher home was ground central for Jewish leaders who were visiting Philadelphia—Mordechai Kaplan, well known rabbis and other leaders of the Conservative and growing Reconstructionist movements. Dinner table conversations were lively, political, Zionist and learned.

Fear of failure, avoidance of embarrassment, a desire not to appear too ignorant and difficulty with short term memory—all of these (with the exception of the last!) are part of a middle school student’s worst nightmare and even more so for an adult.

Although we belonged to a Conservative synagogue and I was forced to attend afternoon/Sunday Hebrew school and High Holiday/occasional Shabbat religious services until I was twelve (no bat mitzvah ceremony was offered at either synagogue to which we belonged), most of my formal religious education and understanding was gained through family gatherings—Shabbat, the High Holidays, Purim, Pesach. I learned the secrets of rolling hamentaschen dough at my grandmother’s elbow and the unwritten recipe for gefilte fish made from fish that we kept in the bathtub and ground in a metal hand-grinder that I use to this day. My familiarity and comfort with Shabbat tefillah came not from organized services in shul, but from years at Jewish overnight camp, where Shabbat experiences were wondrous, loud, spirited and meaningful to an adolescent Jewish female. Like my maternal ancestors, I was involved in community organizations from an early age; chesed and tikkun olam were ingrained in my life.

When I joined the faculty of Akiba Hebrew Academy in September 1981, my exposure to academic Jewish life broadened. As my involvement in Akiba began to expand beyond the classroom, it was clear to me that there were major gaps in my formal Jewish learning as well as in my self-confidence. While I could tell a Tanakh from a Talmud, the Midrash from the Mishnah, a few night/summer session classes in Hebrew were not enough for me to feel confident in the Judaic areas of our school’s curriculum development, as well as in the supervision and evaluation of our Jewish Studies faculty or in my work with Board committees. While I gained expertise in Holocaust Education at CAJE and American Jewish History as a Feinstein Fellow, it was clear that something was missing. Then along came SuLaM which has taken on the daunting task of educating adults who are already considered leaders in the broad field of Jewish education.

What makes SuLaM a model for successful adult education?

First, SuLaM realizes that adult learners, particularly those who are educators, are not unlike the children that we teach. Fear of failure, avoidance of embarrassment, a desire not to appear too ignorant and difficulty with short term memory—all of these (with the exception of the last!) are part of a middle school student’s worst nightmare and even more so for an adult. SuLaM’s instructors respected those personal and emotional elements, as does my current Hebrew teacher who effusively praised us when we completed reading and translating a story from the Mishnah! Even adults need stars on the tops of their papers.

Second, as in any group of students, there are some who come to class with a wealth of prior information, an affinity for a particular type of subject matter, or a base of knowledge in related areas, while others enter the group with no experience at all. As with our own students, adults are hesitant to ask a question that will betray their lack of background, fearing that asking an uninformed question or making a seemingly unrelated comment will stigmatize the speaker. However, by the second or third day of SuLaM, the members of our cohort were comfortable enough with one another to discover that we shared a common, secret fear: “I’ll be the dumbest one in the class.” By learning in a non-judgmental environment, we realized that there were no foolish questions or comments.

Next, the SuLaM program understands that each participant brings years of experiences, pre-conceived notions, prejudices, values, time-tested ways of learning and nuances of knowledge to this program. SuLaM uses these valuable characteristics, largely by creating a community of learners—a place where no one person, including the instructor, has all the answers and where every opinion is given thoughtful, balanced consideration. In a short period of time, through SuLaM’s quiet nurturing, our cohort has become an interdependent family that celebrates our successes and empathizes with the vagaries of our academic lives.

Finally, SuLaM realizes that as educational leaders and as individuals, adult participants have institutional demands and goals to achieve as well as personal ones. The Individual Action Plans, as well as the monthly mentoring beyond the classroom, not only make each SuLaM-ite’s aspirations achievable and relevant, but also follow the best practices of successful professional development. Adult learners, just like the students in our schools, need validation, redirection, knowledgeable guidance and praise.

So this past Pesach, when our gastronomically satisfied family shouted out La-shanah haba’ah birushalayim! to end our seder, I not only could read Hebrew and understand the grammatical context, but the words took on new meaning. Now the “firsts” of 5770 will become “next times”—in Israel, where I hope to be able to speak some Hebrew with Israelis in a meaningful way; when I excitedly look forward to the mental gymnastics required to prepare my next Dvar Torah for our faculty or our SuLaM Cohort; when I help to create more integrative curricula for our school; and most of all, when I struggle to apply new meaning in my Jewish identity. ♦

Leslie Pugach, Upper School Director at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy (formerly Akiba), has been involved in education for over forty years. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

Return to the issue home page:
HaYidion The Educated Jew Summer 2010
The Educated Jew
Summer 2010