Two years after the launch of an advanced Jewish studies program, a group of adults from Middlesex County not only became its first graduates, but all 17 have decided to pursue “graduate” studies by going on for a third year.
The ConText initiative, offered in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, is the flagship program of the Institute for Jewish Learning at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
It was designed for those interested in taking “an intellectual journey through Jewish history.”
The Middlesex group was officially graduated during ceremonies held June 10 at JTS in Manhattan.
The participants represented “a full spectrum of the Jewish community from people who admittedly knew very little to those who had a yeshiva background,” said Eliot Spack of Edison, the federation’s ConText liaison. “It went beyond our expectations. All our participants were extremely satisfied, and I think that is evidenced by their decision to enter the graduate program. Nothing succeeds like success.”
Offered in four eight-week semesters, each tackling a different period in Jewish history, the program was taught by expert faculty, including professors from Rutgers and Princeton universities.
Spack, the former executive director of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, said the program allows those entering a third year of study to select their choice of subjects, contingent on its being able to find appropriate instructors.
JTS would also be receptive, he said, to adding those with the appropriate background into the graduate class, to begin in October at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick.
Students are also being sought for the next two-year undergraduate class, to begin this fall at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.
“We have nine synagogues partnering with us, and it might rotate to any of the other partnering synagogues for semesters two, three, and four,” said Spack. “Some communities have one or two synagogues, but ours is a true community collaborative.”
The ConText program operates in communities from Washington, DC, to Hartford, Conn. It also offers such related activities as seminars, mini-courses, and “Jewish university for a day,” said Lynn Feinman, the institute’s manager of site relations and administration.
Recent students found the experience rewarding and, at times, a little surprising, as they bonded over Jewish learning.
“There was something learned by everyone, from novices to those who studied at yeshiva,” said Paula Masciulli of Monroe. “We looked forward to classes each week. Some of us were testing the waters of Jewish learning; for others it was not an initial adventure. For all of us the experience has been so rich we plan to study together for a third year.”
Stephen Lerner of Monroe said he enrolled “to continue my Jewish learning,” a long-held practice from his decades at the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, where he continues to take courses.
“I felt it gave a relatively comprehensive background as can be given in an eight-week course,” said the 71-year-old former Edison resident. “They really got the top people in the field for each course. You can’t get much better than the chair of the religion department at Princeton,” Leora Batnitzky, an educator who taught in the program.
Classes will start in October. Those wishing to enroll need to do so by early September at jtsa.edu/context.