Updated June 30 at 10:50 a.m.
Almost immediately after learning that the unique Jewish adult education center HaMaqom would be closing, Rachel and David Biale — Jewish educators with links to the Berkeley institution since its founding in the 1970s — knew they had to do something.
“Lehrhaus has been what I would call the crown jewel of the Bay Area Jewish community for 47 years,” David Biale said, referring to the center’s former name for 45 of those years (it was changed to HaMaqom | The Place in 2019). “It fulfills a very important need in the community. To see it disappear feels just wrong.”
Founded as Lehrhaus Judaica in 1974, HaMaqom announced in a June 17 press release that it would be permanently shutting its doors at the end of the summer. Board president Lisa Douglass said at the time that the decision to dissolve the nonprofit had been “extraordinarily difficult,” adding that she believed it was “not the end [but] a new beginning for our programs, staff, and extraordinary educators.”
In a way, she was right. The Biales announced Tuesday they are launching a new Bay Area adult learning center, dubbed the Free Jewish Lehrhaus. They are reclaiming the name of the original center, which was modeled after the interwar hub for Jewish learning in Frankfurt, Germany, known as the freies jüdisches Lehrhaus, or Jewish House of Free Study.
In a phone call with J. on Tuesday, the Biales — who are in the process of incorporating as a nonprofit and already announced an impressive slate of teachers and board members — said they were meeting with a possible funder later in the afternoon, and with a second later in the week.
Among the teachers joining the project: UC Berkeley Hebrew professor and renowned Bible translator Robert Alter, Graduate Theological Union director of Jewish studies and scholar of medieval Judaism Deena Aranoff, and Daniel Boyarin, the Taubman professor of Talmudic culture within Berkeley’s Near Eastern Studies department.
Some of the teachers who have signed on have taught at HaMaqom, such as former executive director and Biblical Hebrew scholar Jehon Grist, longtime HaMaqom leader Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan and founding director Fred Rosenbaum, while others are new, including Jewish educator Rachel Brodie and UC comparative literature professor Chana Kronfeld.
David Biale described the initiative as a “Lehrhaus without walls.” The idea, at least for the first year, is to maintain as lean a budget as possible and keep overhead to a minimum. Administrators will serve on a volunteer basis, and there will be no full-time staff or permanent office space. Classes will be held at synagogues, JCCs and online. “Possibly also in people’s homes,” he said.
The funding priority will be to secure compensation for teachers. “That’s where the money has to go first. It doesn’t have to go to a building, it doesn’t have to go to a fancy salary for an executive,” he said.
While HaMaqom has been reluctant to share details about its dissolution, tax filings show the organization spent heavily on executive salaries. Last year, while earning about $1.85 million in revenue, the nonprofit spent more than $1 million on salaries and other compensation. Three executives earned in the six figures, the filings show; with the executive director earning $239,000.
Current HaMaqom executive director Rabbi Ruth Adar, who had been a major donor to the organization, took the helm in March. She told J. that after taking a “deep dive” into its finances, she realized HaMaqom “was not financially sustainable.” She also told J. that she is not taking a salary.
Biale, a professor of Jewish history at UC Davis, has extensive ties to the institution dating back to its early days. He and Rosenbaum were studying Jewish history together at Berkeley in the ’70s when the latter wrote a paper on the Jewish cultural renaissance of Weimar Germany. The paper would serve as the intellectual inspiration for Lehrhaus Judaica, a unique American version of Frankfurt’s hub for Jewish religious, linguistic and philosophical discourse. Biale and Rosenbaum would teach side-by-side at Lehrhaus in its early years.
Rachel Biale, an Israeli-born social worker and author, shares an extensive background in Jewish adult education and in the nonprofit world. She directed Jewish programming at the Osher Marin JCC for seven years, and served on the board of the East Bay’s Jewish Family and Community Services for six.
What does the Jewish community need now?
She described the decision to start Free Jewish Lehrhaus as “an immediate reaction to the stunning, unexpected news” that HaMaqom was closing. She has a “deep connection to Lehrhaus that goes back to the beginning” — her book “Women and Jewish Law” emerged out of a 1977 Lehrhaus Judaica course.
“I thought I was going out to pasture,” she joked of her retirement. “Then this fell from the sky.”
Board members for the new initiative include Rosenbaum, Biale, Stanford Jewish studies professor Steven Zipperstein, Rabbi Raphael Asher, Rabbi Judy Shanks, former Jewish LearningWorks CEO David Waksberg and more.
Among the new program’s aims, the Biales stressed, is to combine the experience and expertise of renowned scholars while updating the Lehrhaus model to meet the needs of the Jewish community today.
“What does the Jewish community need now?” David Biale said. “Fred answered that question nearly 50 years ago with Lehrhaus. The answer now is going to be similar, but in some ways different.”
Crediting HaMaqom, Biale added, “They asked the questions — are there communities of learners we are not reaching? Younger people, or people who are not your standard, white, Ashkenazi, middle-age or older Jews? Those were good questions to ask. We want to see how we can address those questions as well.”
Biale, who will be on sabbatical in the fall, said he is “very probably” going to be retiring from UC Davis in a year.
“I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was going to do” in retirement, he said. After the HaMaqom closure was announced, he and Rachel “both had this instinctive reaction — that we have to do something about this. We have to throw ourselves into it.”