A first for Reform synagogues — Beth Am hires rabbi for adult ed

In a first for a Reform synagogue, Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills has hired a rabbi to focus solely on teaching adults.

Rabbi Josh Zweiback, 29, began this summer as the adult educator at Beth Am. His position is intended to "develop new frontiers of education in synagogue life," said Rabbi Richard Block, the congregation's senior spiritual leader.

While some synagogues have rabbis who concentrate on education in general, Zweiback will teach adults exclusively. Beth Am also has a director of education, Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, who focuses primarily on youth.

So what exactly is adult education? It's part of Zweiback's job to invent new answers to that question.

For Zweiback, whose position is funded by the Koret Foundation, adult education spans a broad spectrum. It covers anything from Torah study to "all sorts of experiences including praying and giving tzedakah," he said. "Distinctions between mind and body were not made in classical times — living Torah and learning Torah went hand in hand."

Pushing the boundaries of Jewish education, Zweiback gave participants in the congregation's annual Tikkun Olam Day a cassette to play in their cars. On the way to performing their mitzvot, they listened to Zweiback speak about social action and Judaism. The tape included mock interviews with famous Jews, taught some Hebrew phrases and ended with Block offering a brachah to recite before performing a mitzvah.

In another program, Zweiback employs the traditional chevruta method, pairing up adults interested in studying Jewish subjects. Zweiback described it as an approach that's "been road-tested over the past couple thousand years."

Pairing students "builds community and deep, long-lasting friendships. Also it allows adults to study what they want, when they want, where they want," he said.

Students meet with Zweiback at their discretion, and he provides resources, background materials and motivation. So far, 10 people are in the program — some are couples and others were paired by Zweiback.

The congregation now also features a new monthly education seminar that parents attend while their kids are in Sunday school. Called "Bagels, Lattes and Learning," the class grapples with contemporary Jewish issues. The first meeting, for example, focused on how to respond to children's questions about what they hear in the media.

Raised in Omaha, Neb., Zweiback was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles in May. Last year, he worked as a family educator for Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City.

He also rocks out as a guitar player for the band Mah Tovu, a group that performs original Jewish music at occasional festivals. Zweiback writes music for the band and will travel with the group to Nottingham, England, for a show in December.

In 1993, Zweiback founded Kavod, a nonprofit collective that distributes tzedakah funds to those in need. Now executive director of the Omaha-based program, Zweiback has been responsible for the distribution of over $60,000 in donations.

Zweiback lives in Palo Alto with wife Jacqueline, who teaches at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale. In his new job, he will occasionally present teachings during services and may fill in for Block when needed.

Each day at work, he brainstorms ways to slip education into each aspect of synagogue life.

While Zweiback may be the first Reform rabbi to concentrate on adult education, he predicts he will not be the last.

"It seems to be the direction Reform movement in the Bay Area and all the of the Jewish communities are moving," Zweiback said.

"We live in a time that fragments us. I think the Torah is the glue that can put the pieces together."