Chabad keeps students worldwide on same page

Posted Thursday, Mar 30th, 2006
Washington Jewish Week

Each Monday since early last month, Washington-area Jews - singles, young parents, retirees and everyone in between - have been gathering in Fairfax and Potomac to explore time and space, God and spirituality.

Billed as a mystical approach to the concepts of time and the Jewish calendar, The Kabbalah of Time is the 14th course in adult Jewish literacy offered by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, a 7-year-old project of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

“We get all types and stripes, very religious and observant Jews and people who are completely secular,” says Rabbi Leibel Fajnland, who runs the Fairfax program.

JLI is just one of many new initiatives in adult Jewish education; what sets it apart from the pack is the magnitude of its logistics.   

The same week that Kabbalah of Time kicked off in Potomac and Fairfax, the course was launched in more than 160 other cities in 12 countries. Thousands of students in the same eight-week course using the same textbook, the same audio-visual presentation, taught by teachers trained at the same Chabad-run annual seminar.

The first JLI course, Jewish Mysticism, was piloted in 15 Chabad centers in 1999, says Brooklyn, N.Y.-based director Rabbi Efraim Mintz. Each year, the program added 15 or 20 new cities, growing slowly until last year, when it mushroomed by 40 new cities.

“Everyone teaches the very same thing the same week,” Mintz says. “If you’re in California and fly to Cleveland or Melbourne, you can pick it up there.”

Indeed, Fajnland says he recently got a call from a woman taking the class in Miami. She was coming to Northern Virginia for a family visit and wanted to be sure to put the Fairfax class on her schedule.

Rabbi Mendel Bluming, who teaches the Potomac class, notes that one of his students was out in California and hooked up with a class there.

“It sort of makes the entire Jewish people one family,” Bluming says. 

Annandale’s Karyn Selko has taken several JLI courses — “I’ve even gotten non-Jews to go” — and says she’s attracted both to the subject matter and to Fajnland as an educator. “He’s a phenomenal teacher. He has a story for everything, sometimes two or three. … It’s a different way of looking at the world, which talks to me,” says Selko, a member of the Conservative Olam Tikvah in Fairfax.

Each year, JLI offers three six- to eight-week courses: one on basic Judaism, one on kabbalah and one dealing with a contemporary issue. Each is written by one or more authors, reviewed by the institute’s editorial board and taught as a pilot course before adoption.

In line with Chabad’s general philosophy, the classes focus on spiritual nourishment rather than pure intellectual study. The texts and classroom discussion are at a high academic level, but JLI’s rabbi-teachers stress that they’re also trying to provide students with Jewish tools that will inform their daily decisions.

“What’s special about these classes is that no one feels too intimidated to come,” says Bluming.

One of his students, David Kanstoroom, 37, of Potomac, echoes that. Chabad offers classes as part of outreach to Jews who want to learn more about Judaism, the lawyer says.

“Rabbi Bluming reached out to me and inspired me to be more observant,” says Kanstoroom, a member of the Conservative B’nai Tzedek Congregation in Potomac.

Linda Bailin signed up for her first JLI course in Philadelphia “to understand myself better.” At age 54, she says, “you start to search for meaning. I have a lot of feelings inside myself, they’re there because I’m Jewish, and I want to understand them.”

Like many new JLI students, Bailin grew up with little Jewish background. Now she says she brings what she learns home with her. In her case, that means lighting Shabbat candles and “trying not to do anything on Shabbat.”

Last year, she dragged her 22-year-old daughter to a JLI class, and now the daughter is going on a Birthright Israel trip. JLI has “changed my whole outlook on life,” Bailin said.

That’s where JLI differs from Me’ah, the two-year adult education program run by Boston’s Hebrew College. Me’ah’s curriculum covers Jewish history and Bible in chronological order and is designed mainly for adults who have a broad Jewish education and want to “fill in the gaps,” administrative director Raylea Pemstein says.

Those who come to Me’ah “say things like, ‘my children are in day school and I don’t always have answers to their questions,’ or ‘my children are out of the house and I want to do something for myself now,’ ” Pemstein says.

The classes are taught by professors, whereas JLI is taught by rabbis.

“There are people who come to Me’ah looking for that spiritual piece, but we advertise it as an academic course,” she says.

JLI started out much like Me’ah, says Chana Silberstein, Chabad emissary to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and a member of JLI’s stable of authors. It developed a more spiritual focus because of student demand, she says.

To Selko, a marketing professional with Verizon, the spiritual focus is part of the attraction. 

While Chabad takes a literal view of the Bible, she doesn’t. But, she says, “I can take way from it a spiritual sense.”

Sue Fishkoff writes for JTA News and Features; Debra Rubin is WJW editor.

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