Community Blog Growing with Me’ah: The Reward is Equal to the Struggle

By David Bernat, PhD
David Bernat

I have learned much Torah from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and from my students more than any of them (Babylonian Talmud Taanit 7a).

I literally grew up in—and with—the Hebrew College Me’ah program. When I started in 1998, I was a new parent and a new doctoral student in Biblical Studies at Brandeis. The Me’ah program was about three years old and expanding rapidly. My mentor, Marc Brettler, one of the founding Me’ah instructors, recruited me along with a cohort of my peers, mainly from Brandeis and Harvard. At that point, my approach to scholarship and pedagogy was in formation, and I was at the beginning of a career trajectory. While I was the acknowledged expert in the classroom, the education was multi-directional. The students were, for the most part, older, with more life experience and professional accomplishment — academics, lawyers, physicians, nurses, therapists, and captains of industry — and each brought wisdom and new insights to the material we studied, which helped shape my scholarship and my teaching.

Over the years, the students have more and more become my contemporaries and peers, and I have developed strong and lasting bonds with many of them. A few notable examples include a Me’ah student from Newton who convinced me to run the Boston Marathon with him — my first time — and guided my training regime; and a student from Acton with whom I connected over our mutual passion for wine (we have since enjoyed many an occasion to drink, cook, eat, and learn together).

David Bernat teaching

As a corollary to teaching, I have led four cohorts on an Israel study tour, with an historical and archaeological focus, tied to the first year of the Me’ah curriculum. On one of those trips, I became close with a couple from Cambridge. More than a decade later, I connected, independently and coincidentally, with their daughter, through a CJP program. Subsequently, I officiated at her wedding and the newlywed couple then enrolled in a Me’ah Bible section of mine. All of our families have celebrated together at a number of joyous occasions.

Me’ah is unique among adult learning programs because of its immersive nature and the level of commitment required. Two years, forty 2.5 hour sessions, lots of homework. In my sections students are never spoon-fed. I emphasize questions over answers and process over product. Acquisition of method is always prioritized. While there is content to be conveyed, the ultimate goal is to produce independent learners who can be confident custodians of Jewish tradition. The path is not easy, nor should it be. As with any serious physical training, if you do not sweat, and are not sore the next day, you have not put in the work. No pain, no gain. We are building Torah muscles. As the Mishnah affirms, The reward is equal to the struggle (Avot 5:23).

During the last two decades, I have taught Bible and Rabbinics in Me’ah Classic, as well as a variety of Me’ah Select topics. Along the way, our groups have met in standard classrooms, by the shores of the Dead Sea, and in a Tatami room at a sushi restaurant in Wellesley. I recently started teaching a new course, “Magic, Miracles, and Messiahs: The Supernatural in Jewish Tradition.” We are delving into Jewish traditions about Angels and Demons, Exorcism, and characters from the Bible and Midrash who make rain, raise the dead, and turn water into wine.  My goal is to stretch the bounds of my students’ imaginations and demonstrate that our

authoritative texts can be quirky, outrageous, and not confined to logical Talmudic debate and Maimonidean rationalism — that Torah comes in many flavors and can be learned (and taught) almost anywhere.

Through my Me’ah involvement, as a teacher of Torah, I have been granted the opportunity to impact many lives. In turn, the impact on my life has been indelible and immeasurable.

David Bernat, PhD is an instructor in Hebrew College’s Me’ah program, one of several College community learning programs supported by CJP.

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