Youthful enthusiasm abounds at Melton Mini-School for adults

Bernstein enrolled almost two years ago to get in-depth knowledge about Judaism that she felt she'd missed earlier in life. Offered at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, the two-year program delves into Jewish history, law, values and traditions. Teachers come from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox backgrounds.

"I felt I wanted an opportunity to get the historical component to my Judaism that I never had," said Bernstein, who has been active in the Jewish community for 20 years and currently serves on the boards of both the Jewish Community Federation and Jewish Family and Children's Services in San Francisco.

"I was familiar enough to feel I was part of the community. But I really didn't understand a lot of what I was doing, and it's really put it all in perspective for me."

Bernstein and 11 classmates meet every Wednesday night to get a Jewish perspective on such contemporary issues as abortion, organ donation and euthanasia. In a second class on the same evening, they discuss Jewish history from the beginnings of the religion through current events.

"I always look forward to going," says Bernstein, who started classes in January 1997 and will be part of the first graduating class this December.

The night before classes resumed after summer vacation, "I felt like a schoolchild — I was going back to school," she said. "One of the other students said she couldn't sleep, she was so excited."

A group of 20 students started its second year of the program in September. And a third group entered the school for the first time, taking classes in the philosophy of Judaism and the cycles of the religion.

Students get suggested readings, but "the philosophy of the class is there's no homework because people are so busy," says Yossi Offenberg, the program's coordinator.

At the same time, the program's two-year duration gives students a chance to absorb far more information than they would in shorter-term classes. "The learning is systematic," says Offenberg. "You build week in and week out. There's time for student interaction."

Students represent a "broad spectrum of the community," he says. "We have professors, we have nurses. Those who are affiliated, those who aren't affiliated. Those who have knowledge, those who don't."

Because the instructors themselves come from a variety of Jewish backgrounds, Offenberg says the program "doesn't push any one point of view. It describes all the differing points of view in Judaism and lets the student make an informed decision.

"Often the teachers will sit in on others' classes," he said. "They really work together. It's a model of respect."

Second-year teacher Chanan Feld is an Orthodox Jew affiliated with Chabad. "Everything I say is from an Orthodox viewpoint, but the texts are traditional texts," he says.

In his class on the ethics of Jewish living, Feld tackles "all the big issues," such as abortion and homosexuality. The ensuing discussions, he notes, sometimes get lively. "It's definitely not a homogeneous group," said Feld. "It's clear that you can mention something about God, and not everyone agrees there is a God."

Despite their different beliefs, the students are receptive to other opinions, Feld says. "It's actually a very warm, open group."

The mini-school's curriculum is written in part by scholars at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Since Florence Melton, a Jewish education advocate from Ohio, conceived the programs in the early 1980s, about 40 schools have sprung up worldwide.

Tuition is $650. That fee is discounted for members of the following sponsoring synagogues: Congregation Emanu-El, Congregation B'nai Emunah, Or Shalom Jewish Community and Congregation Sha'ar Zahav. Each class accepts up to 25 students.