Community Blog Twenty Years of Me’ah: Student Reflections
On the 20th anniversary of Me’ah, we asked participants representing each graduating class to share their experiences and love of Greater Boston’s premier Jewish adult-learning program.
Rabbi Suzanne Offit, Rab’09 Hebrew College
My introduction to Hebrew College was in 1991 as a student seeking a Jewish academic connection. Blessed to have Professor Judith Kates teach my first Torah class, the seeking only deepened and intensified. A few years and classes later, I enthusiastically entered a new enterprise called Me’ah. I wasn’t only a satisfied learner, I was the Me’ah poster child, with my photo on the brochure. Torah learning continued as I tried to keep up with my boys at Solomon Schechter Day School. Then, in 2004, I entered another new Hebrew College enterprise, the Rabbinical School. A Me’ah graduate gone wild! Since rabbinic ordination in 2009, I have been joyfully employed at Hebrew SeniorLife in Roslindale as rabbi and chaplain for the post-acute services and palliative-care consult team.
Mitchell Shames Temple Israel, Boston
If Jews are known as the “People of the Book,” then Me’ah exposed me to the book(s) that have sustained and defined us as a people. From the Bible to Midrash to the Pittsburgh Platform to feminist theology, Jews have expressed themselves and explored their deepest theological, moral, ethical, and political concerns through various narrative and textual forms. Me’ah provided me with the broad sweep of these traditions. Most notably, reading the early German reformers exposed me to the rich intellectual underpinnings of Reform Judaism, and enabled me to move beyond the clichéd notion of the Reform movement as Judaism Lite. As the wider Jewish community wrestles with the findings of the Pew study, these early reformers provide wisdom and a tradition for forging a uniquely Jewish response to the challenges posed by secular culture.
Heidi Tyson Lexington Collaborative
When I enrolled in Me’ah, my Jewish identity was primarily formed by my legacy as a child of Holocaust survivors. Me’ah was my first sustained study of biblical texts and Jewish history, and inspired me to continue these studies. Learning about my heritage has drawn me closer to my faith. Following my Me’ah graduation, I became more involved in leadership roles at my synagogue, becoming a trustee at Temple Isaiah, chairing youth and adult-education committees, and coordinating Ivrit la-Kol, a Hebrew-language program. I not only appreciate the personal impact but also that Me’ah continues to build community and foster collaboration between the two Lexington synagogues that comprise the Lexington Collaborative.
Howard Rubin Wayland Collaborative
My Me’ah experience may have been typical of many others’. I grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, attended religious school and Hebrew high school, and was active in USY (United Synagogue Youth). In addition, I studied two semesters of Hebrew language during college. I considered myself a fairly educated Jew. When my family joined Congregation Or Atid as one of the original members, I got the opportunity to interact with local religious scholars who were also members of our small but growing synagogue — people like Larry Sternberg of Brandeis and David Aaron of Wellesley College. I also participated in creating policies and building a culture for our fledgling community. I needed more Jewish education from an adult perspective.
My wife, Elyse, decided to attend Me’ah as part of the first cohort of suburban locations in a joint class between Or Atid and Temple Shir Tikva. She thought it was a wonderful educational experience. I was unable to attend with her as I was then the synagogue president. Two years later, I attended Me’ah and found the experience to be stimulating, interesting, and challenging. The additional exposure to renowned educators and the class interaction with other adults was always interesting. I will admit I did at times find it challenging to focus, as I was busy at work and classes were held on Thursday evenings. I am glad I had this opportunity to learn with other adults, and I would recommend it to others.
Arlene Bernstein Hebrew College
Me’ah gave me the opportunity to enroll in a Jewish studies curriculum for the first time as an adult learner. As an attorney, I had an advanced secular education; however, my formal Jewish education was rudimentary. The organization of Me’ah into four time periods provided a framework and grounding for my understanding of the evolution of Jewish history and thought. Our class was fortunate to have the opportunity to study with inspiring teachers, Professor Yehudah Mirsky and Rabbi Meir Sendor. Me’ah enabled me to continue to pursue Jewish studies through lectures, courses, and study groups.
Enid Shapiro, z”l Hebrew College
Prior to Me’ah, my knowledge of Jewish history was truly scant. Me’ah opened my eyes and ears to the spiritual journey that has become a source of understanding and growth that continues to this day. My fellow students and I have bonded as a group and continue to meet weekly, committed to gaining the knowledge that comes from the hidden messages and insights in our tradition. Inspired by the teaching, I enrolled for a second Me’ah course with different teachers, who offered different perspectives. Both experiences have enriched my life.
Burton and Elaine Marmer MetroWest Collaborative
We gathered together, 27 young and not-so-young; single, married couples, and those who came alone; the Judaically-challenged and those well versed; the fearful and the confident; Conservative, Reform, undeclared, doubters, and believers. Together, we began a two-year intimate relationship with our faith and with one another. Me’ah has given us the skill and confidence to participate in adult Jewish learning. It has offered us the occasion to become part of a large community of eager learners. Studying together has added an entirely new and rich dimension to our lives. It has encouraged us to continue exploring Jewish education and to encourage others to do the same.
Lesley Belay Hebrew College
I have long struggled with my Jewish identity. It wasn’t until my mid-forties, twenty years after leaving school, that I found my way to Me’ah at Hebrew College, where a whole new world opened up to me. Not only was it a place to learn about Jewish history and philosophy with top-flight instructors, but it provided a safe space to explore the many ways to “be” and “do” Jewish. Me’ah led me to continue with my Jewish studies, culminating in a graduate degree in Jewish intellectual thought. It also led me to design and lead an array of adult-education programs at my synagogue and at larger venues in the Boston area. For me, the Me’ah program represents a model for Jewish institutions seeking to become welcoming and inclusive, respectful of diversity, and intellectually challenging.
Ruth B. Balser Hebrew College
I participated in Me’ah when I was in my 50s. A mother whose children were young adults, and a psychologist who had made a midlife career change by entering politics, I found myself wanting to pay some attention to my life as a Jew. I had always had a strong sense of Jewish identity, had been a member of synagogues, and engaged in the Jewish community, but my Jewish education had ended with bat mitzvah. Frankly, my conception of Jewish history and religion was that of a child. I enrolled in Me’ah because I yearned for more meaning than what comes from identity and nostalgia. By touching on archaeology, linguistics, philosophy, political history and religion, I began to get a sense of the richness and depth of Jewish knowledge.
As a result of my Me’ah studies, I developed a greater understanding of how Judaism informs my work in politics as well as my relationships. The program raised provocative questions, with which I continue to struggle, about the role of religion in my life. It strengthened my commitment to the Jewish people and our mission. And most importantly, it whetted my appetite to learn more.
Sheldon Kriegel Temple Israel, Sharon
Never did I believe, during an intense working life, that one day I would find myself in this situation. I thought retirement meant sitting with my feet up, a newspaper or pulp novel in my lap, an occasional TV show or small job around the house on my agenda. But there I was in my eighties, sitting with my wife, Ruth, my daughter, Annette, and son-in-law, Ravin, and some 20-plus other students, attending Me’ah classes. I soon discovered that age discrepancies find a level playing field when in a classroom environment. Although it would take a lifetime to cover it all in depth, we did study Jewish history, rabbinics, liturgy and contemporary Jewish life. There were good lectures and good discussions, with enough informality to allow for occasional good laughter. And now, here I am, in my 90s, with good memories, a bookshelf full of challenging Me’ah reading material and a different concept of what retirement should be.
Carol and Steve Doppelt MetroWest Collaborative
Carol and I have always been involved in Jewish causes. As early as the 1960s, we marched in Washington for Soviet Jewry and, in 1969, made our first of many trips to Israel. We returned from that trip with an emotional attachment to the land and its people. We then enrolled our children, Michael and Mara, in Jewish day schools so that they could have the Jewish education that we were lacking. In 2006, we learned of the Me’ah program and knew immediately that this would fill some of the void in our Jewish education. It became the event that we most looked forward to each week. The teachers were engrossing; the reading, educational; the classes, inspiring. Completion of the Me’ah program led us the following year to establish our annual volunteer mission to Israel, Vacation with Soul, in Haifa.
Stephen Lebovitz Congregation Or Atid, Wayland
Me’ah was on my list for several years. I had heard so many great things, but kept wondering when I could find the time. So when Rabbi (Sally) Finestone called to ask me to register, that little nudge was all I needed. I am so grateful that I did. The curriculum and faculty were amazing. It was a time to relearn much that I had initially been exposed to during my grade-school and high-school years, but also to dive into the material in a much deeper, more sophisticated manner. I learned so much in a short time about Judaism, the Torah, and other writings, other religions, and Israel. Me’ah also allowed me to develop relationships with classmates who became close friends. Three years later, when I became president of Congregation Or Atid, several of my Me’ah colleagues took on key leadership positions. Our Me’ah experience motivated us to pursue areas of engagement at our synagogue and in the Jewish community. The bond we had developed through Me’ah helped us to work together successfully as a team. Me’ah also reinforced the critical importance of Jewish education, which became a major focus of my presidency, and led to my involvement with CJP’s Commission on Jewish Life and Learning. Participating in Me’ah taught me in many important ways and played a critical role in influencing my future priorities in the Jewish community.
Stephanie Gertz South Area Collaborative
I’ve always been interested in studying Judaism. But as I became an adult and entered the working world, I had less opportunity to do so. The two years I was in Me’ah were transformative. I started as a fiancée, became a newlywed, then suffered a heartbreaking miscarriage. When I graduated, I was pregnant again with my daughter, who was born six months later! Me’ah gave me consistency over those two years. No matter what was going on in my life, I had a regular Tuesday-night commitment where I could block out everything in my life and just focus on study. It’s a rare thing to have that sacred time, and I am so grateful to have had it.
Eugene Step Hebrew College
When my son started Prozdor in 2007 after graduating from Schechter, I decided to sign up for Me’ah. My Jewish education was too far behind his. Soviet school, university, and graduate school in chemistry did not provide much opportunity. Me’ah classes were inspiring and intellectually stimulating. I loved all of them — almost. I could not get rabbinics; it was very different from my way of thinking. As years passed, I realized how much I was missing. So, in 2014, I decided to take Me’ah a second time, at Temple Emanuel, together with my wife, Julia. And this time, rabbinics fascinates me most.
Patricia and Michael Blank MetroWest Collaborative
We decided to participate in the Me’ah program as a couple, which enabled us to share the experience rather than listening to one another tell how awesome the class was! At the time, our eldest son was in the Israel Defense Forces. And as big supporters of and frequent visitors to Israel, we felt we needed a spiritual lift. Being able to do this as a couple not only gave us more time together, it also provided us an opportunity to have engaging and intellectual discussions that strengthened our deep connection to Judaism. The year went fast, and we enjoyed the company of our classmates as well as the teachers of the program.
Marc Gary Temple Emanuel, Newton
My wife, Michelle, and I decided to participate in Me’ah because it provided the opportunity to study with outstanding scholars, such as Jon Levenson and Shaye Cohen, whom we knew from their reputations and writings. The experience served to enrich our already committed Jewish lives, but it also helped me focus on some ultimate questions — questions raised not by our teachers but primarily by the diverse group of students in our class. A year after Me’ah concluded, I decided to leave my 35-year career in the law and become the executive vice chancellor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a preeminent institution of Jewish higher education in North America. I am not contending that my Me’ah experience led directly to that decision, but it may very well have influenced it.
David Rudolph Congregation Sha’aray Shalom, Hingham
The original invitation to join a Me’ah group came when more free time was available for the participants; that was in 1998, a long time ago. Three Me’ah courses later, and more knowledgeable than before, I believe the experience was simply wonderful. Each teacher brought us to new heights with great information and caring, even with complex topics. Many were topics we would not have chosen voluntarily; however, they stimulated us to learn in areas not familiar to many of us. Each student in the class completed the two years. Many of us still meet to discuss various topics. Our current program is reviewing and discussing Joel Hoffman’s book “The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor.” Without our Me’ah background, we could never undertake such a topic. The growth of our group has made a great difference to Temple Sha’aray Shalom and the South Shore Jewish community.
Peter Strock Congregation Mishkan Tefila, Chestnut Hill
Me’ah came along as I was realizing how career-focused my studies had been and that there were huge gaps in my general knowledge, especially Judaically. The curriculum appealed as a survey of material known and unknown, of history, philosophy, religion and culture. It was a chance to study that which has no right answer, and was meant to be reflected upon. As an advanced adult, I find it compelling to wonder: What has it all been about, which leads to the obvious need to learn what it is. With the help of excellent teachers, Me’ah led me to explore way beyond its boundaries, to ask questions and follow my curiosity rather than collect facts for a use or a test. Me’ah has not changed my pattern of observance or my faith, nor has it resolved the issues of theodicy. It does give me something to reflect on when I am in shul, and it encourages the hope that the answer will come at a later time.
Bernice Lerner Cambridge Collaborative
Twenty years ago, when I served as founding director of Me’ah, I had a sense of the narrative of the Jewish people. What I learned as a graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary has since faded and, three years ago, I decided I needed greater understanding. I also wanted to see how it felt to actually participate in a program that I was promoting so vigorously; if I, who had so little time, could find a few hours a week to “sit at the feet of the greats,” so could others. Taking Me’ah affirmed for me the value of our sacred work. I savored sessions taught by our outstanding faculty and enjoyed “traveling” with thoughtful others; each of my classmates brought his or her own compelling story and perspectives to our discussions. I gained knowledge of contexts and particulars, and a scaffold upon which to hang bits of what I read and view. Finally, I realized how the Me’ah journey is eminently doable; there are no excuses!
Michelle Black Temple Beth Elohim, Wellesley
I have always been an avid learner. While in college, I specifically remember noticing adults who chose to audit college-level courses, and noted to myself that I wanted to be an “adult learner” one day. Once I completed my formal schooling and started a family, I missed the intellectual stimulation. When Parenting Through a Jewish Lens [link[ was offered at Temple Beth Elohim, where my children were enrolled in preschool, I enthusiastically signed up. I wasn’t looking for Jewish content at that time; I was drawn to the parenting curriculum. However, it was through this course that I was introduced to pearls of wisdom that could be found within our sacred Jewish texts — and I wanted to learn more!
I joined a women’s study group and enrolled in a text-study class. The more I learned, the more I realized how much I did not know. When the opportunity to enroll in Me’ah presented itself, I did not hesitate to join. I was eager to deepen my knowledge and understanding, not only of Torah and traditions but also of our history and teachings from biblical times through today. Enrolling in 100 hours of college-level, curriculum-based learning was a gift that strengthened and reinforced my Jewish identity. I received a top-notch secular education, and feel incredibly fortunate that I live in a community that values a top-notch Jewish education. Thank you, CJP and Hebrew College, for making Me’ah available to so many adults in Greater Boston. We are stronger, and certainly more literate and enriched, because of it.
Laurie Gershkowitz CJP Women’s Philanthropy Class at Hebrew College
The importance of faith and being Jewish has always been a constant in my life. Even as a young woman, I was drawn to the social part of the religion. Today, that remains the primary drive for my devotion and activism. It started with making friends in Jewish youth groups such as United Synagogue Youth and B’nai B’rith Girls. Now, it continues with Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Gateways, and my temple, Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill. I love to stay involved because I continue to meet so many interesting people through my Jewish involvement and journey. Two years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting forty new “sisters” when we traveled to Israel together on a CJP mission. The trip sparked an interest in wanting to learn more about the traditional roots of the religion. This led me and several of my sisters to Me’ah. As I finish my 100 hours of Jewish learning, I am enlightened to know that Judaism is so much more than a religion, with laws, prayers and services. I now understand it is also a cultural, spiritual and ethical way of life.
Stanley Steinberg Temple Emanuel, Newton
Me’ah challenged me and I looked eagerly ahead to every class. My classmates became friends and close relationships developed. The group was surprisingly diverse but then why be surprised because our Jewish people are so diverse. Some had studied extensively and others not. Some had synagogue leadership roles, some came from orthodox backgrounds, some are from other countries and others have converted, some understood Hebrew and others not. As peer relationships grew our inhibitions fell away, we shared opinions, taught each other and had fun learning together. My classmates were perfect for our time and place.
I had no way to know the exceptional caliber of teacher we would meet. Each in their own way delivered their message, stimulated classroom engagement and respected the view of every student. Not only is it humbling to be taught by brilliant devoted teachers and scholars and authors, it illustrated the scope of the learning which is possible. We are fortunate to be in Boston with the support of CJP and Hebrew College leading the way in contemporary adult Jewish learning. I could not have predicted and am happy to write that because of my Me’ah experience, I am now deeply committed to further Jewish learning and see this continuing without end. One of the greatest compliments about what Me’ah has instilled in my group is many of our class plan to continue studying together.
Marilyn Tracey Kerem Shalom, Concord
Upon being asked to write about what the Me’ah journey meant to me, I found that the end of the journey left me feeling a little sad. The elation I had felt when I had signed up two years ago and the anticipation of the course work to come, meeting of new people and relationships formed over discussions, meeting our teachers, delving into biblical sources and philosophical interpretations were now over……..but not really! My quest for knowledge will still continue but Me’ah at Kerem Shalom is completed.
After a lifetime of taking various Judaic courses at the Zionist house, at Temple Emunah, my congregation in Lexington, I wanted to enroll in Me’ah because of its reputation. Tons of reading at an academic level, discussion of the texts, no exams….learning for learning’s sake. Why did I wait so long? I think that Hebrew College and CJP have made an investment in a wonderful program for the adult Jewish community and all the community has to do is step up to the plate. I will continue with my Jewish learning as long as I can. Me’ah with its wonderful , intellectual, brilliant teachers is a ray of hope and serves as a tremendous example for encouraging knowledge of our Jewish heritage