Adult ed program strikes right academic, spiritual chord

boston | Me’ah, an intensive, two-year Jewish adult education program going into its 10th year, is spreading from Boston across the country.

The name of the program, which means 100 in Hebrew, refers to the roughly 100 hours of study time participants spend over the two-year cycle.

Me’ah, which began in 1994 with 50 students in Greater Boston, now is offered in Maryland, Ohio, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York, as well as other locations in Massachusetts. This school year it more than doubled the number of classes offered, from eight to 20.

In separate conversations about Me’ah, its visionary creators, David Gordis, president of Hebrew College, and Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, sum up the key to the program’s success in three words: quality, quality, quality.

Location is a close second, as the program is held conveniently in neighborhood synagogues and Jewish community centers.

Gordis and Shrage are touting the results of a recently released survey of Me’ah’s Boston-area graduates, who are turning up in record-high numbers in leadership positions in their synagogues; some even started a Jewish day school.

“This is the right moment in Jewish history because there’s a huge longing for spirituality, community and a serious engagement with Judaism,” Shrage said. “I believe adult education is up there with day schools as transformational opportunities.”

“We were dealing with a population of people who by and large have been exposed to quality higher education and had become accustomed within their Jewish connections to be satisfied with mediocrity,” Gordis recalled.

Comparing the quality in secular education with Jewish education, Shrage quipped, “The passion for Shakespeare does not carry over to Maimonides.”

Their prescription was a high-quality, academic level curriculum taught by college-level professors during a two-year course of study using Jewish texts.

“We’re bringing the university to the synagogue,” said Richard Feczko, Me’ah’s national director. “It changes the relationship because it brings together elements of the Jewish community that normally don’t come together.”

Tuition runs about $1,200 per student, about half of which is covered through subsidies from sponsoring Jewish federations.

If Me’ah sounds like an obvious solution now, there was nothing that fit the bill when the program was launched, Gordis and Shrage explained. Other adult Jewish learning either was episodic or was higher-level learning aimed at a small cadre of synagogue leaders.

Terry Rosenberg heard Shrage’s motivational speech about Me’ah about nine years ago when her synagogue, Beth Elohim in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, was looking to revitalize its synagogue life.

“It was five minutes that changed my life,” she said.

Shrage prodded the group, Rosenberg recalled, asking, “How come you have no problem if I asked you to distinguish between a Rembrandt and a Monet, but you’re not embarrassed that you don’t know about Rashi or Maimonides?”

Rosenberg was so inspired that she organized a Me’ah class for Beth Elohim. In its first year, 1997, it attracted 50 members. Many of the Beth Elohim graduates now are active leaders in the synagogue. Rosenberg has worked her way up through leadership positions at Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and co-chairs the organization’s committee on Jewish continuity and education, which is the funding source for Me’ah.

Rosenberg says Me’ah fulfills both community and personal needs. “They were there to find personal meaning and connection with a religion they were culturally connected to, but not necessarily religiously connected to,” she said. “We realized that we wanted a Jewish identity which meant more than bagels and lox and High Holy Day services.”

Richard Pzena could easily be the poster face for Me’ah: After he heard from a friend who works at Hebrew College that Me’ah might be expanding beyond the Boston area, he organized a group in his synagogue, Temple Sinai, in Summit, N.J.

“It struck a chord with a lot of people,” Pzena said. “You create bonds with your classmates and really learn on an academic level.”