Michael Krasny, best known to locals as the former longtime host of "Forum" on KQED, is now teaching a course for New Lehrhaus. (Photo/File)
Michael Krasny, best known to locals as the former longtime host of "Forum" on KQED, is now teaching a course for New Lehrhaus. (Photo/File)

New Lehrhaus started small and then ‘exploded’ — in a good way

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When HaMaqom | The Place — formerly Lehrhaus Judaica — announced it was closing its doors in June 2021, the move caught many by surprise.

Since its founding in 1974, the venerable, Berkeley-based Jewish adult learning institute, modeled after the early 20th-century Jewish House of Free Study in Frankfurt, Germany, had served more than 100,000 students and offered more than 7,500 courses in topics ranging from Talmud and Hebrew language to the arts, history, interfaith issues, social justice, cuisine and much more. It was widely acknowledged as the go-to place for ongoing Jewish education in the Bay Area.

Thus, many in the community breathed a sigh of relief when the gauntlet was immediately picked up by Jewish educators Rachel and David Biale, who created New Lehrhaus from the still-smoldering ashes of the old.

“We couldn’t let it die,” Rachel Biale told J. in a recent interview tied to the one-year anniversary of the center’s relaunch. “It had to be revived, even if it was going to be on life support for a while.”

“Our mission as New Lehrhaus is to provide some anchoring in Jewish tradition, Jewish practice,” said Rachel Biale, who runs New Lehrhaus with her husband, David.
Rachel Biale is the acting pro bono director of New Lehrhaus.

Building upon the same format as its predecessor, New Lehrhaus started small. For the first year, classes were only online and free (“We had a very clunky website, and it would take too much time to organize a system for payment,” she said). The Biales reached out to their wide circle of friends and colleagues to be teachers, virtually none of whom were paid. Neither was Rachel, who serves as pro-bono program director.

“We thought we’d be scraping by financially, maybe we’d get 500 students the first year and have 20 to 25 courses,” she said.

Instead, the project “exploded,” she reported. In its first 12 months, more than 50 teachers offered some 64 courses attended by 4,500 registrants representing about 1,700 individual students (many took several courses).

New Lehrhaus now works with more than a dozen local synagogues and JCCs, absorbed a sacred text study program called Talmud Circles and study tours previously hosted by its predecessor. In the spring, it hired a program manager and incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

Most of today’s Lehrhaus students took courses at the original Lehrhaus Judaica, which was renamed Hamaqom | The Place in 2019. But about one-third are new, along with many new teachers.

One new teacher is Michael Krasny, a professor of English at San Francisco State University best known to local residents as the longtime host of KQED Radio’s “Forum” news and public affairs show.

We thought we’d be scraping by financially, maybe we’d get 500 students the first year and have 20 to 25 courses.

When the Biales called last summer to ask whether he’d develop a New Lehrhaus course, he had recently retired and, he recalled, “I said, sure!” He put together a course on 20th-century Jewish writers he believes “are increasingly being ignored,” including Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley and Saul Bellow.

Teaching online was “like when I was a young professor, and would meet in people’s homes to talk about writers,” he told J.

Later this year, he will teach part of a Zoom course on cancel culture, one of the new topics being rolled out this season.

Krasny likes the way New Lehrhaus, and Lehrhaus Judaica before it, describes its offerings as“adult learning” rather than lectures.

“The idea of drawing people in is very appealing,” he said, noting that he also has taught at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Santa Clara University. “There are some wonderful opportunities in lifetime learning. It’s a subject that deserves more attention.”

San Rafael education consultant Linda Michels remembers taking “one or two Lehrhaus classes, many years ago,” but was drawn back in a few months ago by a class on the Jewish history of the Ukrainian capital, “Kiev: Jewish Metropolis.” The course description stated that Jews were officially readmitted to the city in 1859.

Fred Rosenbaum founded the original Lehrhaus in 1974 and will be teaching classes as part of the new Lehrhaus beginning next month.
Fred Rosenbaum, founder of the the original Lehrhaus, has also taught for New Lehrhaus.

“That contradicted what I thought I knew,” she said, noting that her great-grandmother had to sneak into Kyiv around that time by assuming the identity of a Jewish seamstress who had died. Just 19, she was “rescued” by her father; both were caught by the police and returned forcibly to their shtetl. How could that happen if it was legal for Jews to live in the city?

Like many first-generation Americans, Michels’ great-grandmother and grandmother were tight-lipped about their past, she said. The class — taught by Natan Meir, Portland State University’s Judaic studies chair, who is deeply immersed in the topic and wrote the book on which the course was based — helped her put the pieces together, Michels added.

“I had this information all my life, but the lights went on now,” she said. She was so enthralled by what she learned that she wrote a blog about it.  “They never said they were ‘Russian.’ They were Jews who lived in Russia. That struck me now, how unwelcome they always felt there.”

This fall, New Lehrhaus has started charging a small course fee, $12 per session. Teachers who are “at the beginning of their careers” are paid, Rachel Biale said, while most of the older educators remain unpaid.

While most classes will remain online through the end of the year, a Nov. 20 event will be held at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, featuring a new film about the late Israeli writer Amos Oz. Organizers also are putting together special programs, such as a “Fiddler on the Roof” sing-along paired with a Chinese buffet scheduled for, of course, Dec. 25.

“We are all hungry to be in community, in a physical space,” Biale said. “We are stepping in gingerly.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].