Danish, Swedish Jews hold first joint Limmud conference

About 160 Swedes and Danes attended the first inter-Scandinavian Limmud Jewish learning event.

The March 11 event was held at an adult education center in Lund, a Swedish city situated 23 miles north of Copenhagen.

“Last year we held the first Lund Limmud and this is the first time that the event has gone international,” said the event’s co-organizer, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian.

“Many Swedes can understand Danish and visa versa, but to completely eliminate the language barrier each time bloc included at least one session in Danish or English,” said Lillian, an American Reconstructionist rabbi who immigrated to Malmo from Chicago two years ago.

The event was promoted on social media in Swedish, Danish and English. The 2014 Oresunds Limmud will be held at a bigger venue, Lillian said.

She added the majority of participants were Swedish but a few dozen Danes also came, including former Danish chief rabbi Bent Melchior. In his address, he encouraged Jewish communities to embrace families with only one Jewish spouse.

Studying Sephardic roots

Adina Jalali, a 15-year-old student at Yeshiva High Tech in Los Angeles, has many Ashkenazi friends, but when her parents recently offered her the chance to visit Israel for the first time, she opted for a trip that would resonate with her Sephardic upbringing. 

Over winter break, Jalali, from Beverlywood, was one of nine teens to visit Israel on a unique tour run by the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC) out of Los Angeles.

While the tours organized by the SEC — for teens and young adults as well as people their parents’ age and older — go to some of the same cultural and holy sites as other trips, the emphasis here is on Sephardic history, culture, philosophy and religious practice. 

“Every other Israel program is ‘Ashkenaz,’ and I would have had trouble relating to them,” Adina said. With the SEC, “we visited Sephardic synagogues, went to the tombs of Sephardic rabbis, ate Sephardic food. I connected to my culture and am feeling proud of being Sephardic.” 

The SEC was founded in 1979 to provide Jews of all backgrounds with “authentic Sephardic Judaism,” according to Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, the center’s director.

“The goal was to share more than ethnic food and music,” he said.  “Our purpose is to share the whole intellectual, spiritual and halachic side of Sephardic Judaism that has been a largely untapped resource.” 

In much of the Jewish world, Judaism “has been largely expressed through an Ashkenazi lens, whether it be [Joseph] Soloveitchik or [Abraham Joshua] Heschel,” Bouskila said of the preeminent Orthodox and Conservative rabbi-thinkers of the 20th century.  

“What we’re saying is, there is another way to approach Judaism and the issues” ordinarily seen through the lens of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism.

The fact that most Diaspora Jews are unfamiliar with the works of the great Sephardic rabbis “is largely due to the language factor,” the rabbi said. The SEC is now assembling a team of scholars in Israel who will translate some of these texts. 

In its early years, the SEC focused on educating high school pupils, college-age students and young adults, but in recent years it has expanded to adult education programs. The Los Angeles center serves more than 2,000 adults each year. 

“In the Diaspora we are an outreach organization,” Bouskila explained. “It can be anything from scholar-in-residence lectures to informal groups [in] private homes.” 

There are Shabbatons, and Bouskila himself offers lectures on Sephardic customs and practices prior to major Jewish holidays. Topics this winter include a series on Maimonides. 

The center’s most well-known event is its annual Sephardic Film Festival, which is a fundraiser and a way to contribute to the cultural life of Los Angeles and educate the public. In November, the 11th annual film festival began with a gala evening at Paramount Studios. The weeklong festival, which attracted 1,500 movie-goers, screened films about Jewish communities in Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Yemen and India, among others. Every night featured a Q-and-A by a Sephardic actor, filmmaker or rabbi. 

Neil Sheff, a Westside immigration attorney, helped create the film festival and remains co-chair. He was part of the first SEC Israel summer program in 1980, and he went on to be a counselor for future summer programs as well as the first executive director for the center in Los Angeles.

The SEC and its programs have been like family for Sheff, now an executive board member in Los Angeles and Jerusalem — and not just because he met his wife at one of the center’s cultural and social programs for young professionals and his 15-year-old son just returned from a trip to Israel with the organization.

He continues to organize and attend retreats and gatherings for young couples and families, and aside from whatever specific material he learns, the events carry a more important, consistent message: Judaism without extremism or judgment of others.

“The approach that the SEC promotes, which is a classic Sephardic approach, is one of moderation that makes Judaism as a lifestyle accessible to all at each individual’s own level of observance as we strive to learn more about our religious heritage,” Sheff said.

While the SEC’s executive offices are in Los Angeles, where it offers a broad array of programming, the center’s heart is in Jerusalem. There it maintains a small but vibrant campus that serves as a base for visiting groups. 

In a typical year, the campus, located in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, hosts 50 to 75 teens and young adults. Every other year, it also hosts 20 to 25 adults.   

“We’re not a mass production type of organization,” Bouskila said. “We fill a niche.”

Adult visitors to Israel spend a week immersed in seminars, beit midrash learning and a bit of travel. Local professors and scholars provide the teaching.  

This year’s teen participants — whose parents visited Israel on SEC tours decades ago — went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, hiked in the Ein Gedi nature reserve near the Dead Sea and climbed Masada. 

While such activities are fairly typical of teen tours, others were more unique. The L.A. students attended the graduation ceremony of Air Force pilots in the presence of the prime minister and the minister of defense. After the ceremony, they met one of the star graduates: the first religious Israeli woman to become a combat navigator. 

“We took pictures, but we can’t share them due to military regulations,” Bouskila said. 

In the northern city of Sfat, they visited the tombs of the Sephardic refugees exiled from Spain who later formed the inner circle of kabbalists.

Every morning and on Shabbat, the participants prayed from Sephardic prayerbooks and recited the melodies they have known since childhood. 

The center’s location in the Old City enabled the students to soak up Jewish history and learn about the Jews, Muslims, Christians and Armenians who live there. 

“Our center in Jerusalem is our intellectual, spiritual home,” Bouskila said, “where all our programs are housed.”

The three-building complex includes classrooms, multipurpose rooms, a synagogue, dining hall, full-service catering kitchen and about 50 dorm rooms. Renovations will add 15 luxury rooms, a library/beit midrash, new classrooms, offices, a student lounge and lecture hall as well as a museum/visitors center. 

When its own groups aren’t using the campus, the SEC rents it out to other groups. The income helps support SEC programs and made it possible for the center to host the most recent group of students free of charge. 

“This current trip, they paid only the airfare,” Bouskila said. 

Although he could have come to Israel on just about any teen program, Ezra Soriano, 16, from Woodland Hills, was determined to tour with the SEC, just as his parents did in the 1980s.

“I’m with Rabbi Bouskila and a bunch of friends, and I’m learning a whole bunch of new things about myself and the people around me,” he said. 

One thing Ezra learned is that the Jewish traditions his family practices at home are shared by many other Sephardic Jews. His family’s roots are in the Greek island of Rhodes.

“I thought I was unique, but now I’m grateful that I can share these traditions with my friends and hopefully with my own family one day in the future,” the teen said. 

While Sephardic culture is a central theme of the SEC tour, Soriano and his friends spent their winter break getting to know all kinds of Israelis. 

“I’m realizing how closely connected I am to Israel and how much more connected I want to be,” Soriano said. “When we get home, we want to be ambassadors to all the people in our Jewish community.”

Sepulveda Pass class

When he greets students next month who have enrolled in his four-session class “The Sepulveda Pass: From Creation to Carmaggedon,” instructor and historian Erik Greenberg will be returning to familiar territory. 

Geographically speaking, so will his students. From their classroom at the Skirball Cultural Center, Greenberg and his pupils will be learning about the pass from the pass. 

The Skirball, which opened in 1996, has become a kind of ground zero for Jewish cultural life within the Sepulveda Pass, along with its neighbors, American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism), Stephen S. Wise Temple, Milken Community High School and Leo Baeck Temple.

In addition to being a hub of Jewish culture, the Sepulveda Pass is a thoroughfare between two significant concentrations of Judaism in Los Angeles: L.A.’s Westside and the San Fernando Valley communities of Sherman Oaks and Encino.

“One concept I very much like thinking about is the pass as the Brooklyn Bridge of Los Angeles,” says Greenberg, who grew up in New York and moved to Los Angeles in 1990. “Like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Sepulveda Pass and the San Diego Freeway bridge two major communities, and they do it by crossing this really challenging geographical boundary.”

Adele Lander Burke, vice president of the Skirball’s Learning for Life adult programming, says the class aptly and uniquely tackles the center’s aims. It will meet Feb. 10 and 24 and March 3 and 17.

“Part of our mission at the Skirball is to link Jewish heritage and values with the broader story of America and American values,” Burke says. “We get a sense that this is not just a freeway connector you might see as you zip through. The positioning of several Jewish institutions in the pass is a part of the story of how Los Angeles has changed physically and how the Jewish community has moved geographically. This is something we have not looked at before.”

Greenberg’s fascination with the pass — its geography, history and cultural significance — is a mixture of scholarly and personal interest. The director of education for the Autry National Center, Greenberg lives and works in the eastern San Fernando Valley. He ventures onto the actual Sepulveda Boulevard stretch of the pass — as many Angelenos do — only when the 7.5-mile section of the boulevard between Valley Vista Boulevard and Brentwood proves a more traffic-friendly alternative to that demon known as the 405. 

These days, ongoing Sepulveda Pass/I-405 improvements, which will result in the relocation of bridges and widening of the freeway, have turned the area into an ever-shifting maze of road closures, detours and construction vehicles. The strategic closing of sections of the I-405 within the Sepulveda Pass — and the anxiety that created for many area residents — helped birth and popularize the term “Carmaggedon.”

But as Greenberg’s class will remind people, there was a time many years ago when there was no I-405 for Angeleno pioneers to brave. In the 18th century, the first Europeans crested the pass and moved down into what Miguel Costanso, part of an expedition led by Gaspar de Portola, called a “very large and spacious valley.” He was referring to what would later be known as the San Fernando Valley. 

Instructor Erik Greenberg. Photo by Emma Greenberg

Traveling the pass would not have been an easy trek back then, Greenberg notes, but that hasn’t changed with time.

“It’s outrageously steep,” Greenberg says of the pass. “It rises very quickly and descends very quickly. Anybody who has ever walked, biked or driven a car with a manual transmission on the pass knows it’s unrelenting.” 

Greenberg says his class will chart the history of the place, including how land that once belonged to the Tongva Indians gave way to Spanish mission and ranchero use. It will consider the formation of suburbs, but also will talk about people- — the Sepulvedas, who lived in what is now the South Bay, and engineer William Mulholland. 

Moving closer to the present, he’ll talk about the relocation of the former University of Judaism (UJ), which had previously been at several different L.A. sites, to its Familian campus on Mulholland Drive. Schedule permitting, the final class will feature a visit by Skirball Chairman and CEO Uri Herscher and a discussion of how the area known as the top of the hill became a Jewish hub. 

“I always perceived the development of the pass to be linked to the development of Stephen S. Wise and the University of Judaism, which came about through the late 1950s to the 1970s,” Greenberg says. “But Uri points out that really the first Jewish institution on the pass is Leo Baeck Temple at the bottom of the pass.” 

Greenberg’s connection to the pass began in 2000, when his wife, Amy, took a four-month conversion class at the UJ and went through formal conversion a year later. Their then-3-year-old daughter, Emma, was immersed in the mikveh as well. 

Although his own academic work prevented him from taking the classes with his wife, Greenberg found his commitment to his faith increasing the more his wife learned. The concept of journeying to the top of a hill — in this case, the UJ — and returning with knowledge now had a personal resonance. The subject became a theme of a seminar paper Greenberg wrote for an environmental history class at California State University, Northridge, in 2004. 

“Almost every Jew is a Jew by Choice,” Greenberg says. “Through her learning at the top of the hill, Amy gave us the opportunity to make that choice, to learn what we didn’t understand and to choose.

“The Sepulveda Pass has an intensely personal connection for me,” he adds. “My interest in the past emerged from my personal experience, so I’m excited to come back to the pass and think about it again.”

Students will have the opportunity to share their histories with the Sepulveda Pass, to review photographs and readings and to think about the concepts of names and neighborhoods. It will be a class heavy on student input, says Greenberg, who, at the Autry, has been known to make mountains out of crumpled paper and flow water through them as a way to demonstrate environmental phenomena.

“I hope to come up with some good fun stuff having to do with land and earthquakes,” he says.

Perhaps even a field trip for students?

“Maybe if the class is successful,” Greenberg says with a laugh. “If I do it again, we could put them all on bikes or something.”

LINK to daylong learning

On any given night, upward of 75 Jewish men and women cram into a building at 1453 S. Robertson Blvd. to study Torah, discuss religious texts and educate themselves on what it means to live a Jewish life.

From sunup to sundown, they come and they learn and they pray — just a day in the life at LINK, the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel.

Rabbi Asher Brander, who was the rabbi at Westwood Kehilla and teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school for 20 years, started LINK in 2002. It’s a kollel, a place where rabbinic scholars study among themselves and teach people in the community. 

For nine years, it was located at Kehilla before moving to Pico-Robertson in 2011. Seven days a week, classes are taught on everything from Talmud to Psalms. High Holy Days rituals are covered, as is halachah, Jewish law. 

“At LINK, there is a very vibrant, dynamic environment, and that creates a tremendous connection with the Torah, HaShem and Judaism,” Brander said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”
Along with the traditional classes on Jewish texts and law that are held from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. nearly every day, LINK offers prayer services, space for independent study, and courses on everyday situations and issues. The 10 rabbis and instructors teach, in English, about character development, marriage, parenting, dating, finding a soul mate and why bad things happen to good people.
Among the five or six classes taught per day — and more than 30 per week — some are solely for men or women, but others are open to both. The schedule is revised four times a year — during the High Holy Days, the fall, winter and spring — and four guest speakers visit each year. In February, LINK is hosting a Shabbaton with Rabbi Mordechai Becher, a senior lecturer from Gateways, an organization that helps Jews connect to their religion.

Rabbi Eli Stern, LINK outreach director and an instructor, said the kollel is for everyone from every background and affiliation.

“We are teaching Torah. We are not preaching how someone should practice. It’s not about preaching to people. It’s about learning with people,” he said.
Since moving to Pico-Robertson, attendance at classes has grown significantly, doubling from 75 to 150 people coming every week, according to Brander.

The move from Westwood meant adapting to the needs of a new neighborhood, too. Now it is in the thick of one of Los Angeles’ most vibrant Jewish communities and among a variety of Orthodox shuls. As a result, LINK has been transformed from an introductory setting to one that welcomes all levels of learning. 

“There is a wide variety of classes,” Brander said. “It changed because any institution needs to be sensitive to the needs of community. Pico-Robertson has its own set of needs, and it’s a different type of clientele [than Westwood]. Obviously Jews are Jews, but Pico-Robertson has a lot going on, and we cater to what the niches are.”
LINK is a nonprofit, and during the first year it was open on Robertson, it didn’t charge dues to members of its synagogue division. Even now, people can come in any time free of charge for services as well as for learning. 

Jews can walk into LINK not only to learn, but to connect with people in their community as well. The Torah Learning for Collegiates program (TLC), led by Shoshana Rivka Bloom, is for women only and meets every Tuesday night. It features local and out-of-town speakers each week who talk about relationships, Jewish study, history, law and hashgacha (kosher supervision). Among the two dozen or so women who show up every week, the majority are single and in their 20s.
“LINK fills a void … in the Pico-Robertson area,” Bloom said. “The rabbis are very talented in reaching out to people who have very little or close to no background in Judaism. Rabbi Brander is warm and loving and cares about every Jew. Everyone feels welcome. It’s really a wonderful thing.”
Mitch Karp, who lives in the neighborhood, has been going to LINK for the past year. He takes classes on tehillim (psalms) and the Rambam and studies there on his own. Before it came along, he hadn’t found his spiritual home. 

“At the other shuls, something was definitely missing,” he said. “It had maybe the learning, but I didn’t feel connected to people. LINK has the learning, the prayer and the connection with the rabbis.”
Karp said that in the community, there is no one-stop shop for all-day learning and prayer.

“I can stay there 24/7 if I wanted to do that. There isn’t any other place on Pico where you can go early and stay as long as you want. It’s more like a yeshiva, but it’s also very open as well.”

Another student, Elliot Cavalier, has been taking classes at LINK since 2002. He said that it’s a valuable space because “it brings Torah to the masses and makes it accessible to the masses. There are a lot of classes geared toward people who don’t have a background [in Jewish studies].”

At LINK, Brander and his colleagues are there primarily to provide the many students and members with the education they never received at a Jewish day school. In addition, there is a program called The Beis, which has a double meaning. It’s pronounced “base” in English and means “house” in Hebrew. It’s for men who attended Jewish day schools but have drifted and not yet found their way back to Torah study.
Stern said that LINK doesn’t care about the level of observance of potential students, or if they’re a beginner or an expert. 

“The main thing is that you’re interested in learning,” he said. “We have a very eclectic group of people who are learning in this neighborhood. They are coming here on a regular basis and learning the skills to empower themselves to one day pick up a text and study on their own. It should be the goal of every Jew.”
What makes LINK special, according to Brander, is that any and every kind of Jew can enter the building and begin his or her learning. 

“We have under the same roof many different people from different walks of life. We have Jews that are not observant to Jews that are very religious. We have people wearing white shirts and black pants, and some people wear jeans and T-shirts. There are Persians, French people, Ashkenazim, men and women. There is a tremendous sense of diversity. People feel very welcome. The Torah does the talking.”

LimmudLA honors founders

LimmudLA honored its founders, Linda Fife and Shep Rosenman, in an evening of dinner, music and study on Sunday, Sept. 9, at the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens.

LimmudLA is the local outlet of an international model of interdisciplinary, interdenominational, no-boundaries Jewish conferences and events. Founded in the United Kingdom more than 30 years ago, Limmud now conducts 60 conferences in 30 countries, all of them almost entirely run by volunteers.

Fife and Rosenman conceived of bringing Limmud to Los Angeles about seven years ago, after they participated in a Limmud conference in New York. They rallied volunteers and funders and five years ago held the first conference in Southern California over Presidents’ Day weekend, with close to 700 participants converging at the Hilton Orange County in Costa Mesa. The conferences have continued there each February since then.

In 2013, however, LimmudLA plans to forgo its annual marquis conference, instead holding smaller, local events ranging from cultural to academic to family-oriented.

“We’re trying to be localized and organic to the communities where we’re doing different events,” said Yechiel Hoffman, executive director of LimmudLA, the only paid staff member. “Rather than taking people out to Orange County for an event, this gives us a way of being able to provide different options and different access points where people are.”

More than 400 volunteers have stepped up for LimmudLA since its inception. Hoffman said about 120 people are currently active volunteers. LimmudLA plans to hold a multi-day event next summer and is aiming to put on the full conference again in the winter of 2014. 

About 175 people came to honor Fife and Rosenman at what was LimmudLA’s first gala fundraiser. The organization met its goal of raising $75,000. 

The event featured music, text study and an examination of Jewish narrative. Rather than a plaque, Rosenman and Fife each received the newly published Koren Talmud, Tractate Brachot, and rather than a traditional acceptance speech, they staged a musical collaboration that had the audience responding to Rosenman’s “oom-pa-pas” and “ba-da-das.” Fife said it was, like LimmudLA, an example of volunteers stepping out of their comfort zones to produce something meaningful.

More options available locally for people who want to learn Hebrew

As tourists flock this year to the Israel to celebrate the Jewish State’s 60th anniversary, they may find themselves thumbing through Hebrew phrasebooks to order at a restaurant, to haggle in a shuck or to figure out how to get back to the hotel.

And while interest in learning modern Hebrew is expected to bloom in advance of such trips, Hebrew instructors say there is more to learning the language than simply studying vocabulary and grammar. In addition to learning to read (and write) in cursive Hebrew and without vowels, there’s the mastery of idiomatic expressions and understanding cultural nuances. And let’s not forget that telltale American accent.

In addition to tourism, reasons for wanting to learn the language can be as diverse as the names on the Hebrew class rosters. For some it’s a deep-seated expression of Jewish pride, while others see it as a practical first step toward making aliyah — immigrating — to Israel.

Also known as Israeli Hebrew, new Hebrew or standard Hebrew, the spoken language of modern Hebrew was revived during the 19th-century movement to establish a homeland for the Jewish people and won out in a tug-of-war with Yiddish. The modern interpretation of the biblical language uses Sephardic pronunciation as well as borrowed American, European and Arabic terms.

Yona Sabar, professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at UCLA, says that the Jewish community should focus more attention on greater Hebrew literacy, because it has the greatest potential to unify diverse Jewish communities.

“Hebrew should be on the agenda,” he said.

While Jews represent the majority of students taking Hebrew at the university level, non-Jewish Asian, Arab, black and Latino students have been known to take a year or two to meet their language requirement. Some do it as a change of pace, while others are focused on adding a skill for professional development. Today’s university Hebrew students include professors and graduate students studying the language for academic reasons, as well as a minority of Christians and Muslims who want to learn the language to better understand Israel.

Rivka Dori, director of Hebrew studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion/Los Angeles and an instructor at USC, says she has one student who recently joined her class because he signed to play with Tel Aviv’s Maccabi Elite basketball team.

Among the Jews who take Dori’s class, she says, some are seeking to truly expand their knowledge and connect with their roots. “The others think it’s going to be an easy grade, and they discover two weeks into the semester that it’s not the case,” she said.

In continuing adult education programs, the majority of learners want to pick up Hebrew to communicate with friends or colleagues, read Israeli publications or use the language while on vacation in Israel. Some are converts who are enthusiastic about their Jewish identity, while others are seeking to make aliyah in the coming years and want to be ready to integrate themselves into Israeli society when they arrive.

Still others are the children of Israeli American parents who want to take their language skills beyond the basic conversational level.

And while some non-Jews attend modern Hebrew classes after studying biblical Hebrew, another segment of the non-Jewish community has developed an interest in the language because of contact with Israeli American friends.

Based on experience, Yair Nardi no longer assumes people in Los Angeles don’t speak or understand a little Hebrew. The Calabasas Hebrew High teacher and tutor says that non-Jewish friends of Israeli Americans frequently pick up phrases over time, and that there’s no telling who can understand what he’s saying when he uses Hebrew in public.

Once when he was at a mall, he remarked in Hebrew to his son about how a woman’s dog was ugly.

“She turned around and said, ‘It’s not an ugly dog and it’s not nice what you said,'” Nardi recalled. “You really have to watch it.”

Nardi believes we are living at a unique time, because more non-Jews are learning and using modern Hebrew than at any other point in history.

As far as how long it will take for a novice learner to begin speaking the language, teachers say most students can expect to know rudimentary phrases within a few months. Anything more depends on a variety of factors, including previous exposure to the language, the age of the student and time devoted to study.

Undergraduate and graduate university programs typically meet five hours each week with the addition of a language lab, while continuing education efforts like the American Jewish University’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education or the Israel Aliyah Center/Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles’ Hebrew Ulpan for Adults meet once a week for about two to three hours.

Most adult modern Hebrew programs today conduct classes using an immersion — or ulpan — method, in which Hebrew is the only language spoken after the first or second class.

“The brain has to think in Hebrew,” said Ziva Plattner, who has taught at the Hebrew Ulpan for Adults for eight years “It’s like building a building. You have to start from a foundation and work up.”

The point of the system is to acquire vocabulary quickly and learn to use it without consciously thinking about conjugation or rules like subject-verb agreement.

“What’s important is to remember how it is used in the language within the pattern they are learning and then they transfer this knowledge to other sentences and they construct the vocabulary,” said Liora Alkalay, Hebrew coordinator at the Whizin Center for Continuing Education. “And gradually, after a year, most of our students are speaking Hebrew quite learnedly.”

HUC-JIR’s Rivka refers to the method as “language elegance.”

“Grammar is a nasty word in the field. It’s not a way to study language,” she said. “You can study about a language, but not internalize any of it. So you can know about a language, including the linguistic aspects, but still not have any functionality in the language. What Hebrew educators are trying to do is teach students to be functional in the language.”

Class sizes in an ulpan setting are kept purposefully small, typically about six to 10 students, to ensure greater interaction between teacher and students.

Giving Adult Students Credit They Deserve

A group of local Jewish educators are seeking funding to start a novel adult-education academy that would grant a certificate of recognition to students who complete its requirements over three years.

The Orange County Academy of Jewish Growth and Learning is envisioned as a way to impose a quasi-academic structure on an array of existing courses offered by local synagogues, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Community Scholar Program.

Around the country, administrators of similar nonacademic Judaic studies programs are also trying to elevate their curriculum with professionalism. For instance, the continuing legal-education requirements of three state bars now accept for credit an ethics class offered by the Jewish Learning Institute, a fast-expanding program established by the Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch movement. Chabad is seeking similar approvals in six other states, including California.

Behind the shift toward formality is the perception that to boost participation in Judaic studies, adults require a greater inducement than spiritual satisfaction.

"It may motivate people to take more classes by being part of a larger experience," said Arie Katz, chairman of the Community Scholar Program and who is involved in the academy’s organization.

"We want to validate the study in the community and honor the people who do," said Joan Kaye, director of the Bureau of Jewish Education, who also supports the academy’s formation.

Even without formal accreditation, an academy certificate would accrue some economic value. A national teacher licensing board for Jewish schools already accepts such informal studies as partially meeting licensing requirements.

"The motivation is to create opportunity for serious Jewish learning," said Michael Mayersohn, who resigned as rabbi of Westminster’s Temple Beth David in August. Mayersohn would serve as the academy’s part-time dean and sole employee. He hoped to start his duties this month.

However, the academy’s request for $20,000 in start-up funding from the Jewish Federation of Orange County was postponed in September and put off for a month, along with other allocation requests.

The academy’s five required areas of study would accept courses regardless of denomination and will rely on an honor system. A proposed $50 annual academy fee does not include individual class fees. Mayersohn would offer assistance in helping students plan a program that suits their interests.

"For the average person, it’s possibly daunting," said Reuven Mintz, rabbi of Chabad Center of Newport Beach. "But for people looking for something deeper, this will please them," he said, still maintaining that too few learning opportunities exist for adults.

"I feel there is a thirst in this community," Mintz said, pointing out that four local Jewish Learning Institute sites drew 200 students weekly last year. Kaye, he said, had been skeptical about JLI’s chances for success. "Commitment-based education had failed in Orange County," he remembers being told.

A decade ago, little attention was paid to adult Jewish education by the national movements. A shift is underway as new and established national programs, such as JLI, Meah at Hebrew College of Boston, Chicago’s Melton Adult Mini School and the JCC association’s Derech Torah, are rapidly expanding.

Paul Flexner, chair of the Alliance for Adult Jewish Learning, an educators’ group, said, "People are seeking meaning in their lives and looking to find ways to spend leisure time in a meaningful way. "

Unaffilated Find Connection in LINK

When Simone Gold walked into Shalom Time at Borders Books in Westwood, the first thing she noticed was that she was not dressed quite as conservatively as many others in the audience, who wore long skirts and sleeves.

But her 2-year-old son was enjoying the Jewish songs, dances and shtick, and the endeavor seemed so sincere, she stayed, and even hung around to schmooze afterward.

Gold, an emergency-room physician who is marginally affiliated to Judaism, has since attended several classes and Shabbat dinners sponsored by the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel (LINK), a year-old organization based at the Westwood Kehilla that puts on Shalom Time and adult classes, many of them for beginners.

"There are around 222,000 Jews in West L.A., and they are not all going to Young Israel and Beth Jacob and B’nai David. So we have to go where they are — to the libraries, to Borders, to the malls," said Rabbi Asher Brander, founder of LINK and rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, a small Orthodox shul. "Kiruv [outreach] is a hand-to-hand combat business, and the only way it works is with relationships."

Gold has found the people at LINK to be nonjudgmental and sincere, and the classes full of solid information. That combination has kept her coming back, even though she says she doesn’t think she will ever become Orthodox.

"It’s made me think more about spirituality, incorporating actual religious rituals into daily life," Gold said. "I think more seriously and more consistently about doing tzedakah, or being courteous and doing more mitzvahs in my daily life."

LINK has had to distinguish itself in a crowded outreach field in Los Angeles; Chabad, the Jewish Learning Exchange and Aish HaTorah, to name just a few, have similar mandates.

To carve his niche, Brander has imported from Israel and across the United States, a handful of energized young rabbis who spend all morning studying Torah and all afternoon (and for many of them into the late nights) reaching out to different segments of the Los Angeles Jewish community.

He has also expanded LINK’s realm to two other areas beyond traditional outreach: shoring up the adult educational offerings in the Orthodox community and providing a venue for study and socializing for Orthodox college-age students.

LINK runs on a budget of $450,000 a year, most of which Brander and his executive director, Rabbi Brad Yellen, raise in small donations. The Shalom Outreach Program recently received a $10,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation to bring Shalom Time and Jewish fairs to malls and libraries.

"The goal is to give Jews today educational material they have never been meaningfully exposed to, to allow them to make meaningful choices about the Jewish direction of their lives," said Rabbi Eli Stern, education director for LINK.

That applies not only to those who come with little background, but also to those already in the Orthodox community. LINK hopes to increase the textual skills and the frequency of learning within the Orthodox community by offering classes at different synagogues or in homes around the city — including a 5:45 a.m. Talmud class.

Simi Yellen’s Positive Parenting classes for women, which mix Jewish philosophy with practical techniques, attract about 60 women a week.

LINK has also targeted Orthodox college students, a severely underserved population, according to Rabbi Avraham Willig, who studies with about 150 students through Torah Learning for Collegiates, a program LINK cosponsors with Yeshiva of Los Angeles.

"It’s not just the learning, it’s the creation of chevra [social circle], it’s having someone to go to who can understand you when you are making important decisions in life," said Brander, who has been teaching at YULA High School for 15 years.

Rabbi Meyer May, executive director of Yeshiva of Los Angeles, commends Brander and his wife Batyah for their vision.

"He has that rare combination of qualities that demonstrates sincerity, fine humor, stunning commitment to what he is doing and indefatigable drive to get it done," May said.

LINK will hold services with explanations, stories and interactive classes for the High Holidays. $50 (per service), $100 (all three). R.S.V.P. by Sept. 22 to (310) 441-5289, ext. 22. For more information, go to www.linkla.org, or call (310) 470-5465.

Charting a New Course

About 60 people, mainly women, listen intently to Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg as she teaches her class on the weekly Torah portion at the Jerusalem College for Adult Education.

University students sit next to retirees, young mothers and professionals as Zornberg discusses Exodus and what is meant by the Jews having left Egypt b’hipazon (hastily).

She calls upon the traditional commentaries — midrash and Rashi. But her signature is also mixing in heavy doses of original interpretations, pulled from the secular disciplines of psychology, philosophy and English literature. Zornberg contrasts the closed, self-contained Egyptian pharaoh, who could not admit to human needs, to the human trait that allows for doubts, passions and limitations.

Zornberg touches on emotions that speak to her students’ life experiences. This is why Jerusalemites of all ages and backgrounds stream to the Torah classes she gives almost every day in different institutions of higher education throughout the city. Hundreds of English-speaking Israelis attend her classes weekly. But her Torah insights now reach an even wider audience with the publication of her books on the Torah. Her volume on the first book of the Torah, "Genesis: The Beginnings of Desire" (Jewish Publication Society, 1995), won the National Jewish Book Award, and her work on the second, "The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus" (Doubleday Publishers, 2001), hit bookstores in February.

Zornberg is becoming known by the Torah lessons she delivers at synagogues, universities and Jewish community centers throughout the United States. A woman who guards her time and carefully chooses the locations of her Diaspora lectures, Zornberg has taught Torah at Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia, as well as the 92nd Street Y. She is also a regular visiting lecturer at the London School of Jewish Studies.

Zornberg, 56, who wears a long, dramatic sheitl — a wig worn by some Orthodox women as a sign of modesty — is enthusiastic about the new flourishing of women’s study. "These young women are creating a seedbed out of which creative Jewish women’s thinking and scholarship will grow," she says. "Women are opening things up."

Raised in Glasgow, Scotland, Zornberg did not grow up in a place or era where high-level Jewish study was expected of — or even made accessible to — women. But like many traditional learned women, she had a scholarly father, Rabbi Wolf Gottlieb, head of the city’s rabbinical court, who studied with her.

Zornberg attended Gateshead’s Women’s Seminary in northern England, where she imbibed the "religious seriousness" that informs her life. She then went to Cambridge University, where she earned a doctorate in English literature, and began acquiring the tools of literary analysis that serve her well in her interpretations of Torah texts.

In 1969, Zornberg made aliyah, and taught English literature at The Hebrew University. She married and had children with American-born Eric Zornberg, but her family responsibilities prevented her from pursuing an academic career.

However, Zornberg feels that this was serendipity, providential. "I began teaching Torah to a few women, and it mushroomed," she says — as did her reputation as an exciting Bible teacher. Women began coming to Jerusalem from hundreds of miles away to hear her ask questions seldom heard before in Bible class.

"I have greater freedom to follow the lines of thought that interest me," she explains. "In the university there is an unspoken consensus as to what questions to ask."

Avivah Zornberg, will speak April 14, 7 p.m. at Kehillat Ma’arav: "Ruth and Boaz: The Paradigm of Love." $18. 1715 21st St., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 829-0566. She will speak April 16, 4 p.m. at UCLA’s Royce Hall: "The Pit and the Rope: Judah Discovers Joseph." For more information, call (310) 825-5387.

Sinai Temple Opens Center for Judaic Studies

With a faculty of noted scholars, Sinai Temple has adapted an “adult education” program with an eclectic curriculum that is carefully designed to satisfy a wide range of interests, from serious courses in Jewish spirituality, and discussions of the Jew’s role in Society to special classes in Jewish rituals, and interactive sessions for improving synagogue skills, Hebrew reading and lessons in cantillation. Two seminars are scheduled: from October through January andFebruary through May.

Monday evening and Sunday morning classes are planned. The faculty includes: Rabbi David Wolpe and Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz of Sinai Temple, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, vice president and dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinics at the University of Judaism, Rabbi Ron Shulman of Congregation Ner Tamid in Palos Verdes, Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Congregation Ohr HaTorah in West Los Angeles, and Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Associate Professor of Social Work at USC.

“Lunch and Learn” series and other classes are scheduled for those who prefer daytime attendance.

All classes, and lectures require pre-registration and advance payment of fees for each semester. Space is limited. A course outline is available in the Sinai Temple office at 10400 Wilshire Blvd.

For complete details on topics, times and fees, please call The Program Center at (310) 474-1518.

Reform Synagogue Celebrates 50th Anniversary

Temple Beth David, the San Gabriel Valley’s oldest Reform Jewish congregation, begins Golden Anniversary celebrations on Friday, October 17, at a Sabbath service in its sanctuary at 9677 E. Longden Ave., Temple City, at 7:30 p.m.

Speakers include Rabbi Edward Zerin of Westlake Village, the congregation’s first spiritual leader, some of the temple’s original founders and other distinguished members.

Attending dignitaries include Mayor Chuck Souder of Temple City; Phil Liff-Grieff, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys; and Rabbi Alice Dubinsky of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), who will make a presentation.

Following the service, hundreds of members, past and present, will attend a reception, where historical photos and artifacts will be displayed. Weekend events include a Saturday night dinner dance at the Brookside Country Club in Pasadena, and a commemorative planting by religious school children on Sunday.

Temple Beth David was founded in 1947, joined the UAHC in 1948, and moved to its current site in 1952. After arson destroyed the temple’s sanctuary in 1980, the San Gabriel Valley community helped congregants rebuild.

“Our community affirmed the positive values that so many people share,” said Temple Beth David’s Rabbi Alan Lachtman. “The outpouring of love helped us recover from the hateful crime.”

The Temple has launched a new long-term strategic planning initiative that includes a $275,000 facility refurbishment campaign between now and September 1998.

“Our founders demonstrated strength and vision in creating the spiritual home we cherish today,” said President Linda Speil. “Now, we are reaffirming our own commitment and creating the foundations for the next 50 years.”

Temple Beth David is a congregation of more than 200 Reform Jewish families. It has an active Sisterhood and Men’s Club, a number of “havurah” (friendship clubs), and one of the San Gabriel Valley’s fastest-growing religious schools. It has been recognized by the Union Station Foundation and the Friends In Deed Food Bank of Pasadena for its community outreach programs.

For information about the temple or anniversary events, call (626) 287-9994.