“To keep up with my kids.” “So I can read Torah.” “Because I like to learn.” “In order to follow along in services.”
All of these are real answers that I heard from real people when asked why they chose to be part of the adult Hebrew class I am teaching at Rockdale Temple. All of these are important reasons for learning. All of these make a statement about adult education in our community. Collectively, these responses also reflect a bigger challenge in engaging adult learners: how do we make learning available, inviting, and worthwhile for adults?
אלו דברים שאין להם שעור …תלמוד תורה כנגד כולם
Eilu d’varim sh’ain lahem shiur…talmud Torah k’neged kulam. “These are the things that have no measure; that are limitless…..and the study of Torah leads to them all.” (Pe‘ah 1:1)
Within the Mishnaic list of acts that are limitless and without measure, referenced in the above quotation, we find honoring one’s father and mother, performing acts of loving kindness, making peace among people, and studying Torah. We are taught that each of these acts shapes our lives in a way that ensures our enjoyment of this world as well as our place in the world to come. According to the rabbis, leading a life full of Torah study will lead to living out the laws and teachings of tradition in one’s acts. Through study, we gain a rich and meaningful life. But what happens when the study of Torah is daunting? When learning Hebrew seems impossible? When the timing of classes just doesn’t fit into the schedule? These are all challenges congregations face when creating adult education offerings. These are all challenges I have faced in my fellowship work at Rockdale Temple. But there are ways to address them.
We can create a safe space—one in which it is okay to make mistakes, one in which it is okay to ask for help, one in which it is okay to not know the answer. We can acknowledge life stages. Maybe no one in the room has ever studied Jewish thought, but someone might have built a successful career as an engineer or an elementary school teacher. In creating a community of adult learners, one benefits from recognizing areas of expertise that might lie outside the domain of the class. In creating a community of adult learners, one can use these areas of expertise to strengthen the community.
The goal, in my mind, is to create an atmosphere of informed Jewish adults who can truly decide about their practice based on informed choice. Motivation, which often provides a challenge to teaching younger students, is already present in a group of adult learners; no one is forcing them to come to the session. Capturing that motivation, reinforcing efforts and achievements, and honoring life stages and situations all lead to effective and positive adult education experiences. Through my time at Rockdale, I have been challenged by these concepts and I have learned how to adjust my teaching skills and style to a group of learners that has much more life experience than I do. I am humbled and honored by the opportunity not to teach these groups of adults, but to learn with them and from them as well. We might begin with the study of Torah, but we can end with the study of so much more.
Talmud Torah k’neged kulam. The study of Torah leads to it all.
Leah Citrin is at TJF Fellow focusing on adult education in her fellowship at Rockdale Temple.