Community Blog“Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire”

Whenever I try to explain what I do for a living, I get odd looks. I taught for many years in academia, and still do from time to time. But when I say I teach adults in a non-religious program that explores all the different aspects of Judaism, and that I do this more or less full-time, most folks look a bit embarrassed. They inevitably ask, “But how does the program get folks to join? If it’s not for an academic degree, why would they want to take the courses?”

I always search for a way to explain the counterintuitive reality: Hebrew College’s Me’ah classes are exciting. I know this can sound strange, or like a joke, but it’s the truth. My job has two parts. First of all, I have to do all the necessary academic research. But then I have to figure out how to get students to grasp viscerally the real-life issues, the compelling ideas, the battles, the stories of passionate men and women who dedicated — and often sacrificed — their lives for different sorts of Judaic visions. For Me’ah classes to work, they have to satisfy the poet William Butler Yeats’ definition: “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” In other words, what we are studying has to really matter, for us right now. And of course, I know how lucky I am to have engaged students who help make class discussions and debates so energetic — and often, so moving.

Over the years I’ve been able to work with students to create a variety of different courses: the origins and nature of the Talmud, the greatest modern Jewish thinkers, relations between Muslims and Jews, and most recently a course on Jews and national identity that features several weeks on classic Broadway musicals written by Jews.

This year, facing sad and upsetting headlines, and in response to expressions of interest from students, I began revising a course I had taught a few years ago on the history of antisemitism. The old course focused mostly on history, but the new course — “Unpacking Antisemitism” — examines both historical ma-terial and a number of contemporary analyses of antisemitism by political scientists, scholars of religion, psychologists, and social scientists. In this course the goal will be to use all of these texts, and discussions, to generate concrete insights that enrich our understanding and empower us to act and work together. Yet in order for the course to do this for busy, bright adults, it must also move people, involve them, connect them to each other through ideas and debates — it must be exciting. That’s why people take Me’ah courses. It’s also why teaching Me’ah courses is so challenging…and so much fun.

Jacob Meskin, PhD is an instructor and faculty adviser at Me’ah, Hebrew College’s signature adult-learning program and Hebrew College’s Me’ah Select program; this winter/spring, he will teach the Me’ah Select class “Unpacking Antisemitism” at Hebrew College on Thursday beginning February 6.  He is a co-author of Hebrew College’s Parenting Through a Jewish Lens curriculum, teaches a variety of adult Jewish education classes in Greater Boston. He has also taught at Princeton University, Rutgers University, the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University, Williams College and Lehigh University.