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By JOANNE SEIFF In March, Rabbi Sid Schwarz visited Winnipeg to offer innovative ideas for building community. In his Saturday Limmud lecture, he focused on his book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future.

These megatrends resonate with “next gen” Jews (Gen X, Y and Millennials): Hochma/Wisdom, Tzedek/ Social Justice Issues, Kehillah/ Community, and Kedosha/Holiness. How would Winnipeg congregations look if they reflected these megatrends? The buildings might be busy with energized lay-led Jewish micro-communities. Here’s the first of four columns reflecting on what the future could be:

In the 1990s, Reform Jewish leaders asked their congregations to make learning a top priority. In 1999, the UAHC (now URJ) President, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, suggested more singing, Hebrew and ritual to make that happen. He talked about singing the Shema with kids before bed as an example. Adults were offered an equally powerful initiative.
The premise? At every gathering, there should be learning. We can teach or learn something at a worship service or at a holiday activity. Beyond that, imagine the monthly board meeting, with an agenda discussing catering and janitorial services, contracts, and flood repairs. Yup, introduce learning there too. For every meeting and event, somebody spends the first 10 minutes teaching something Jewish. Everyone else spends that time listening, responding, and discussing and debating.
Can you hear the complaints already? How late will the meetings run? Why are you changing our routines? What’s this about?
It’s simple. We are the People of the Book. Jewish learning is central to Jewish identity and continuity. Learning shouldn’t stop at age 13. In some Reform congregations, kids continue in religious school after their b’nai mitzvot until confirmation at age 16. Yet, for many non-Orthodox Jews who don’t go to day schools, Jewish learning stops at 12 or 13. Ask a Jewish adult when he last actively tried to learn something new about Judaism. (It was likely a long time ago.)
The hardest part is getting started. Even well-intentioned adults are resistant to new things. While Rabbi Sid’s “Jewish lab” worship service got attention because it was novel, incorporating learning into every Shabbat service is a different story. It requires people to stop reciting rote prayers, get off the speeding davenning train and stop to think and reflect. We have to stop focusing on the Kiddush as a reward for saying ALL the prayers. Instead, it’s the reward for using brain cells to think about Judaism.
If you last studied Jewish topics at age 13, you might think this wouldn’t be challenging for adults. After all, busy doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, etc. with years of secular learning may wonder how this could be relevant for them.
Well, hold on. I lived in Durham, North Carolina, when I was first married and was working on a Master’s degree in Religious Studies. The rabbi at the Duke University Jewish students’ center hosted weekly Hevruta learning for community members. He paired people up according to interests, ability, and compatibility. My study partner and I studied a Talmud tractate together in painfully slow Hebrew and Aramaic. Others studied in English, in fluent Hebrew, or a combination. Was it challenging and stimulating? Heck yes. It was hard work. The topic, Avodah Zarah (Idol worship), was difficult and adult in nature. We didn’t get far, but if I had to offer it a movie rating, it would be R.
Once Jewish events have a moment of Torah - from teen pizza parties to senior exercise classes…we enrich the lives of people who participate. We benefit from medical studies that indicate that lifelong learning staves off dementia, Alzheimer’s, and depression. We become invested in both our ancient texts and the future. If we know why we do things as Jews, it reinvigorates both our ritual practice and lives.
What does this have to do with the shul? Meeting at Starbucks is great, but if you want a quiet corner to study – with all the books you need, your congregation might be the right place. Imagine this every week:
- A bunch of Jewish lawyers get together to study law – in the Talmud.
- Jewish eco-activists want to plan an event – and need to know which Jewish sources are relevant.
- New moms and babies get together to learn about Jewish attitudes about breast feeding and childcare
- Teenagers organize to run their own events about Jewish issues that concern them
- Jewish music lovers gather to learn new melodies and revisit Israeli folk music or songs from camp
What if they all call the shul office and ask when the building is open so they can meet? If they’re members, this learning space comes as part of the “package.” If not, they pay a donation or rental fee, just like other groups who might want to use the space. If they want coffee or food? That’s extra. What if they want an expert – rabbi or a cantor – to drop by? That costs money, too.
What? It costs money? Research indicates that adult education models only work if participants pay something. If we pay for our learning, we value it and show up. We also pay for the congregation’s operating expenses, too.
If we think it’s important to say the Shema with kids at bedtime…we should be learning, too.
Joanne Seiff is the author of two books and works as a freelance writer, editor, designer and educator. See more of her work on her blog: www.joanneseiff.blogspot.com and check out her designs on Ravelry.com