For six nights a year, thousands of Jewish mental health professionals, lawyers, and physicians from around the world participate in courses delivered by Chabad rabbis that focus on contemporary, relevant and ethical topics with a halachic flavor.
The courses earn participants their continuing education units (CEUs) that are required by their licensing bodies to practice their respective professions. The classes are offered by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) – Chabad’s adult educational arm – in over 1000 communities across 27 different countries spanning from the US to Israel, South Africa to South America and even in Thailand.
The course attracts people from all walks of life in the Jewish community and as Rabbi Efraim Mintz, JLI’s founding director, says: “Torah study was never reserved for the scholar; every Jew has equal rights to and ownership of the Torah.”
“The Lubavitcher Rebbe refused to label Jews and, inspired by his example, we do not see Jews as boxed into a particular label,” he told The Jerusalem Post last week.
“The wisdom of Torah is equally relevant to one who never opened a book as to one who has never lifted his head from the book.”
The program is particularly popular among physicians, attorneys, mental health professionals, businessmen and those involved in the finance sector with over 12,000 psychologists, doctors and lawyers having enrolled in one of JLI’s sixpart courses over the past ten years. Some 397,000 people have taken part in the courses since its inception 17 years ago.
Asked about some of the courses offered, Mintz said the JLI courses address the ethical quandaries faced in the practice of these professions as well as provide tools, skills and the psychology that brings success in each of these fields.
“Studies have recently proven empirically what Torah has taught for centuries. In our courses we compare and contrast the original texts with conventional, modern understanding and new findings in medicine, psychology, law, business, and personal growth,” he said. “Feedback from participating professionals after taking a course is often about how surprised they were to see how ancient texts and classical rabbinic literature have profound insight and relevance to contemporary developments in their field.”
The institute started slowly and its programs began to spread across the world as it was being built up over the years.
“We set out to build a global learning institution that will provide academically rigorous and sophisticated, yet deeply meaningful and relevant educational offerings. To this end, we started with just 15 chapters,” he said. “For the first seven years, as we fine-tuned and perfected our standards and training, we operated with controlled growth, adding just 15 carefully- selected affiliates per year.”
“Today, we have multiple programs and tracks,” Mintz continued. “Some are designed for specific demographics such as university students, young professionals, teens, advanced learners.”
He highlighted that the courses are also fine-tuned for foreign audiences. “When we translate a course for a foreign market, we translate it culturally as well, speaking the ‘local language’ in every way. Our programs are currently offered in more than 1,000 communities worldwide – in seven languages and twenty-seven countries.”
For participant Heather Ufberg, the director of psychology at the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh, JLI’s courses represent a chance for her “to fulfill both her professional and spiritual needs,” which she notes is a “rare combination.”
Ufberg has attended three, six-part courses and is registered for the upcoming, six-part series “Communication: Its art and soul.”
The mother of four said the classes “are really high-quality from a professional development standpoint,” and that she uses the material when she teaches. “They have strongly influenced my clinical classes,” said the psychologist.
Ufberg fully covers her licensing requirements with the 15 credits she receives for each series. She noted that the courses teach “professional development and spirituality, but [are] also very text-based and academic – both from a mental health and a Judaic perspective.”
Mintz explained that JLI was founded because as a young rabbi, he was struck by the fact that while Torah classes were being held regularly in communities around the world, the vast majority of Jews were not attending.
“The Talmud relates that prior to the giving of the Torah at [Mount] Sinai, the angels challenged God [about] why [He] was giving the ‘hemda genuza,’ the hidden, precious treasure to mere mortals? I was struck by the incongruity that today, some 3,400 years after Sinai, Torah is still a precious yet hidden treasure for the majority of Jews,” he explained. “Teachers of Torah often focus on its authenticity and academic voracity and pay less attention to its relevance. Ironically, in the Talmudic narrative, Moshe won the argument against the angels by citing its attention and relevance to real life in this corporeal world.”
Mintz said that JLI was founded “to change the Torah study landscape. Since its inception, JLI educational offerings have been designed to be as relevant as they are authentic. Until today that is the core principle that is the bedrock of all our programs.”
The JLI partners with an extensive network of qualified instructors living and working in communities around the world and “today, thanks to a consistently excellent curricula, coupled with the incredible dedication and sensitivity of the Chabad worldwide emissaries, we continue to enjoy unprecedented growth.”
“We still maintain close communication with each of our affiliates,” Mintz emphasized. “We regularly enhance our educational offerings based on their feedback from the field and from students’ survey responses.”
Casey Skvorc, a medical psychologist and attorney on the staff of the National Institutes of Health, consults with JLI’s team of scholars as a psychology expert for the courses. He acknowledges that initially there was some skepticism about JLI’s eligibility to merit CEUs. However, he noted, officials at the licensing bodies quickly realized that the courses are profound and psychologically sound.
Skvorc, who recently served as the psychologist for Team USA at the Maccabiah games, said: “While many people think that everything there is to say about communication has been set forth, it turns out the Torah has quite a bit more to say on the subject.”
Mintz also emphasized that the JLI is constantly looking to see how the courses intersect with professional development in multiple professional fields.
He said that the JLI is “leveraging the effective formulas that are successful in our current markets and we are actively exploring new formats that appeal to new segments of society and to new countries and cultures.
“It is our goal to continue to enhance our programs to serve our current constituency better and to further expand our reach until Jewish illiteracy ends,” he concluded.
This spring, JLI’s upcoming flagship course “What is?” will begin in English-speaking communities in the third week of April and will tackle existential questions: “Why does evil exist?” “Who is my real self?” “If God is all-knowing, do I have free choice?” Chabad centers in Israel will be offering courses in Hebrew. The lineup for the 2018-2019 academic year includes a legal comparative on criminal justice reform, and a course on the big questions people have about God and religion.