People’s school turns 40: Lehrhaus Judaica fosters passion for learning in Bay Area

Rose Falanga and Cy Silvers were drinking tea in their Berkeley home, trying to remember exactly when they began their longstanding relationship with Jehon Grist, Lehrhaus Judaica’s executive director and long-running teacher of biblical Hebrew.

“It was after my mother died in 1989,” Rose began.

“And before your father died in 1993,” continued Cy.

They settled on 1991, after Rose had converted to Judaism, but before she turned her newfound Hebrew literacy into a gig as a cantorial soloist at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El.

For Rose and Cy, and thousands of others around the Bay Area, Lehrhaus is less a classroom than a community, a place where one’s interest in Judaism is nurtured and encouraged, wherever it leads.

Whether it is a Hebrew class in Lafayette, a Jewish literature group in Los Altos Hills, a film series at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco or an online course on wine in the Bible, students of all backgrounds and levels of Jewish knowledge sign up knowing they will get high-quality instruction. Just as important, they will be encouraged to participate and express themselves.

This was Fred Rosenbaum’s dream 40 years ago when he left graduate school at U.C. Berkeley to create a Jewish school that would offer an engaged, democratic approach to Jewish education. Inspired by his study of the original Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus, created by philosopher Franz Rosenzweig in Frankfurt in 1920, as a truly community-based school, Rosenbaum placed the idea of dialogue at the center of his educational philosophy. (See sidebar.)

Fred Rosenbaum

“What I learned from Rosenzweig is that the highest form of Jewish learning is when the teacher and student exchange places in the classroom,” he explained. “The dialogue should take place between teacher and student, and among the students themselves. We don’t want to impose the class on the student. We want the student to come to us, based on their interest and passion.”

And come they have.

Lehrhaus has provided some 7,500 course offerings since 1974, with more than 100,000 class registrations covering arts, history, language, basic Judaism and interfaith issues, among other topics. For the winter sessions, Lehrhaus is partnering with more than 40 venues and organizations from Los Altos to San Rafael, with an annual budget of under $1 million.

Headquartered in Berkeley, where it shares a building with U.C. Berkeley Hillel, Lehrhaus’ day-to-day operations are run by Grist, a beloved teacher with the organization for 25 years. With a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley in biblical archaeology, Grist has found a home communicating the best of new ideas in Hebrew and archaeology to a broad audience.

Jehon Grist

He is fond of calling Lehrhaus, just a few blocks from People’s Park, the “People’s School.”

“Despite our long history, we are still a grassroots organization,” he said, after returning from a recent Lehrhaus study tour of Israel. “There is no pyramid structure in our office, and no hierarchy in the classroom.” Although instructors are expected to know more about the subject than students, “it’s absolute essential, in a dialogue-based teaching environment, for teachers to enter the classroom with the same level of curiosity and humility as the student.”

For Rosenbaum, also an eminent historian of Northern California Jewish life, dialogue was the antidote to what he saw as the ineffective American Jewish educational system of his youth. Born in Queens, N.Y., in 1947, the product of a Conservative Jewish education, Rosenbaum described the goals of that era’s Hebrew schools as “almost like a vaccination against assimilation or intermarriage,” something “short and painful” and essentially limited to childhood.After receiving a Fulbright to study in Germany, Rosenbaum discovered a community education model in Rosenzweig’s Lehrhaus that welcomed the country’s best academic minds while departing from a rigid, hierarchical university system. The 26-year-old Rosenbaum then left the academic track to become what incoming Lehrhaus board president Howard Simon calls a “citizen-scholar.” With support from the late Seymour Fromer, founder in 1962 of the Judah L. Magnes Museum (now the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life), and then Berkeley Hillel director Rabbi Stephen Robbins, Lehrhaus began in 1974 with a dozen classes.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

It was the right time, and the right place, for such an endeavor.

The Bay Area in the 1970s was a heady place for Jewish innovation. The Magnes was growing quickly, and the inaugural San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the country’s first, Northern California was part of the burgeoning klezmer music revival and gave birth to many havurahs (egalitarian groups) and alternative worship congregations.

Although many large Jewish communities have educational programs that cater to a broad cross-section, there’s nothing quite like Lehrhaus — a nonsectarian, nondenominational program offering courses over an entire region.

Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, who recently took over as head of school at Palo Alto’s Kehillah Jewish High School, said Lehrhaus was his model when he founded Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix in 2007, providing a vision for an organization that could “partner with the entire Jewish community and beyond.”

Harlene Winnick Appelman, executive director of the New York–based Covenant Foundation, said “Lehrhaus was a pioneer in adult Jewish education, creating something that was both town and gown.” This combination of academic and popular study, she said, allowed Lehrhaus to “bring the best academic talent in the Bay Area together, but not be wedded to any particular curriculum. People could apply to teach, and they could ask for courses to be taught. It was grassroots.”

Rabbi Dorothy Richman teaches a section of the Bay Area Community Talmud Circle in 2013. photos/courtesy lehrhaus judaica

In 1998 Rosenbaum received the Covenant Award, an annual prize given to a handful of educators around the country for extraordinary innovation. (Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, Lehrhaus’ senior educator, received the prize in 2002.)

Kevah, a new and fast-growing local Jewish study program, partners with Lehrhaus on the Bay Area Community Talmud Circle, a study project that has 12 cohorts meeting monthly throughout the region.

“Lehrhaus has a wonderfully collaborative and open-hearted approach to its work,” said Sara Bamberger, Kevah’s executive director. “It has welcomed Kevah onto the landscape of adult education warmly and without reserve.”

Allison Green, who runs programs at Jewish LearningWorks’ Jewish Community Library, has partnered with Lehrhaus on library exhibitions about artist Bernard Zakheim and the Fillmore District. “They are great partners,” she explained. “They get things done, they are easy to work with and have wonderful ideas.”

Lehrhaus Judaica’s associate director, Erika Staiti, noted that the warm reception is not an accident. “Our goal is not to have as many classes as possible, but to create community.”

Jewish theologian and philosopher Franz Rosenzweig

For Los Altos’ Mickey Forman and her partner Stephen Tolchin, the connection with community was an unexpected but important benefit of signing up for Lehrhaus Hebrew classes seven years ago at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. Teacher Orna Morad was “absolutely amazing,” according to Forman, and so was the group of learners that, with some changes, has stayed together ever since. “And it’s because of Orna, and the class, that we eventually joined Beth Am.”

In recent years, Lehrhaus has broadened its scope. It offers fewer classes (80 this semester), replacing them with a collection of retreats, study tours, art exhibitions and large-scale programs like Lehrhaus 360. A Lehrhaus 360 program from 2011, focusing on anti-Semitism, drew 500 people. It also has expanded into online learning, with some students taking classes from as far away as New Zealand, and turned its familiar, hamish catalog — for 30 years it was as colorful as the white pages — into a glossy publication accentuating the diversity and vitality both of its offerings and Jewish life in the Bay Area.

Outgoing board president Eve Bernstein, who has been at the helm for 12 years, hopes and expects younger students to gravitate toward Lehrhaus as the organization expands.

Forthcoming projects include an exhibition at the San Francisco Public Library, drawing from new materials found at the Buchenwald concentration camp, and Lehrhaus’ first publication, co-published with the JFCS Holocaust Center, “The Diary of Rywka Lipszyc,” the journal of a 14-year-old girl from the Lodz ghetto.

Given how deeply Lehrhaus Judaica is engrained in the texture of the Bay Area Jewish community, it’s hard to believe that it started as a radical experiment. Howard Simon, who this summer will become only the fourth Lehrhaus board president, attributed its success to “this wonderful combination of talented educators and gifted students. When you can bring those two groups together in dialogue, that’s the perfect model for education.”

For information on Lehrhaus Judaica’s 40th anniversary events, visit

In upcoming dialogues, Lehrhaus to examine Jewish propensity for debate

“Without dialogue, it’s not Jewish.”

So asserts Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, Lehrhaus Judaica’s senior educator, about the centrality of dialogue in Jewish history, text and culture. “There hasn’t been a fundamental Jewish experience without dialogue,” he says. “When learning and dialogue flourishes, that community prospers. When it is absent, the community withers and fades.”

As part of Lehrhaus Judaica’s 40th anniversary, the Jewish adult school is presenting four conversations about dialogue this month at several venues throughout the Bay Area.

Jehon Grist teaching biblical Hebrew in Lehrhaus’ early days photos/courtesy lehrhaus judaica

Wolf-Prusan and Lehrhaus founding director Fred Rosenbaum will discuss the role of dialogue in the philosophy of Martin Buber, while Rabbi Ed Feinstein from L.A.’s Valley Beth Shalom will explore how Jews have talked to each other across time, and Dartmouth College professor Susannah Heschel will explore how Jews have talked about Christianity and Islam in their scholarship.

Professor Marc Dollinger from San Francisco State University, meanwhile, will moderate the panel “Dialogue, the Centerpiece of Jewish Life: Why Can’t We Live Without It?” with professors Deena Aranoff (Graduate Theological Union), David Biale (U.C. Davis) and Steven Zipperstein (Stanford University).

Almost everything in Jewish life, from Abraham’s arguments with God in the Bible to the yearly retelling of the Exodus story at Passover, suggests that dialogue, conversation and argument are central features of the Jewish experience.

It’s certainly central to rabbinic Judaism, which developed after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Shaye Cohen, in his influential 1984 essay “The Significance of Yavneh: Pharisees, Rabbis, and the End of Jewish Sectarianism,” argues that the chief innovation of rabbinic Judaism is “the creation of a society which tolerates disputes without creating sects.” The community leaders at Yavneh, gathering after the destruction of the Temple, decided not to create an orthodoxy of ideas, but a culture “which tolerated, even encouraged, vigorous debate among members of the fold.”

The development of the Talmud over the next few centuries, structured as it is around debate, interpretation and the preservation of minority opinions, led to a style of study called chevruta, in which students pair off to learn and argue about the text. Today’s yeshiva students still follow this ancient pedagogical approach.

In the secular sphere, the overrepresentation of Jews in modern political movements, as well as in the development of psychoanalysis (sometimes called “the talking cure”) is often seen as an outgrowth of a deep cultural bias toward dialogue and debate, expressed by a sense of freedom or even entitlement to ask fundamental questions.

Lehrhaus founder Fred Rosenbaum (left) and the late Magnes founder Seymour Fromer

When Rosenbaum began his graduate school study of the original Lehrhaus, run by Franz Rosenzweig and Buber in Germany in the decades before World War II, he was struck by the school’s emphasis on dialogue over lecture. That insight led Rosenbaum, as he wrote in an article in 1986, to created a new Lehrhaus in which “the very disagreements, the dialogue about the instructors, and above all between student and instructor, is not only tolerable but actually necessary in the task of creating a Jewish intelligentsia” ready to take on new challenges.

Although Rosenzweig’s work is not widely known among contemporary American Jews, many are familiar with the philosophy of Buber, whose idea of “I and Thou” privileges deep dialogue as the fundamental quality of both theology and human relations.

Biale, a longtime colleague of Rosenbaum’s who directs the U.C. Davis Humanities Institute, is hoping his panel discussion will, in good Jewish fashion, engender “dialogue about dialogue.”

On the one hand, he agrees that traditional Jewish culture deeply values dialogue and debate, as revealed in the Talmud’s “emphasis on disputation, in which the majority never fully really rules, and minority openings were preserved.”

On the other hand, Biale wonders if contemporary Jews may read a quality of politeness into their own history, mistaking the “aggressive” quality of Talmud study for an ideal of civil conversation. Even today, Jews are “often very proud of their contentiousness. They repeat the joke of ‘two Jews, three opinions’ out of a sense of pride.”

Classical rabbinic thinking, as reflected in the Talmud’s ongoing dialogues, can be “unsettling,” explains professor Deena Aranoff. In a course on Jewish views of the afterlife, for example, some students were puzzled that she “made no effort to resolve the debates within the tradition. … I took for granted a style of Jewish learning, and maybe conversation, that is comfortable with multiple perspectives.”

This Jewish approach to dialogue is less like “the dialogues of Plato, which are static and perfect. Jewish dialogue is messier, and doesn’t require a resolution.”

Since the 1970s, the Jewish Bay Area has been a hub of dialogue, both of the polite and impolite kind. Since 2008, the Contemporary Jewish Museum has emphasized dialogue as its educational mission, and in the last couple of years the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute has found fertile ground locally for its iEngage classes, which create a safe space to talk about Israel — a subject about which dialogue is often almost impossible, within and outside the mainstream Jewish community.

A case in point is the firestorm that erupted during the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, following a program discussing pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, who died during protests in the West Bank. To create a framework for more focused conversation on this issue, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council promoted the Year of Civil Discourse, during which hundreds of local Jews took part in discussions aimed at encouraging listening as well as talking.

“Part of the future of Lehrhaus, and the Bay Area Jewish community, is in re-educating Jews about how to talk to each other, and not just about Israel,” Wolf-Prusan says. “Assimilation is not our greatest threat, nor is intermarriage. The greatest threat is actually needless hatred, and self-righteousness, which creates barriers to conversation.”

The community can survive only “when we can agree to disagree, but not to stop talking to one another.”

Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.