Teamwork creates classes; Jewish community center works with synagogues to start adult courses


In a groundbreaking collaboration, the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center and three nearby synagogues are teaming up to offer Jewish U, a wide-ranging three-month series of adult education courses.

Beginning this week, Jewish U will offer courses in Hebrew, Biblical studies, marriage and family, and other topics related to Judaism.

"This is quite innovative," said Michael Wegier, the JCC's director of Jewish Education and coordinator of Jewish U, which is planned to operate each year from January to March. It will be limited to the winter months to avoid competition with other programs.

Traditionally, Jewish community centers have offered recreational programs and have steered clear of adult religious education. Jewish U is innovative because it offers Jewish education based at the JCC, and because it is a cooperative venture with the three established synagogues in the Owings Mills and Reisterstown areas, Wegier said.

The participating synagogues are Adat Chaim in Reisterstown and Beth Israel in Owings Mills, both belonging to the Conservative branch of Judaism, and Temple Emanuel in Reisterstown, which is a Reform congregation.

Ellen Macks, chairwoman of the Jewish U committee, said that quality adult Jewish education has long been available in the Upper Park Heights area, which has for several years been the heart of Baltimore's Jewish community. But increasingly, Jews are moving to Baltimore County, where there are fewer opportunities.

"Now people can go around the corner from their house, attend a class and go home," she said.

The course offerings are broad. The first month's classes include talking about sex with children, talking about God with children, steps to a happy marriage, learning about Judaism online and "The Unmasking of Queen Esther," on the heroine of the Biblical book that bears her name.

Classes are held Tuesdays from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the JCC or at the synagogues in the Owings Mills and Reisterstown area. They last for two to six sessions, with the exception of the Hebrew classes, which run longer. A new slate of courses will be offered each month.

Diversity of instructors should make the courses more intriguing. Wegier said that instead of setting a curriculum, he recruited good teachers and let them decide what to teach. "I have a philosophy: 'Never choose the course, choose the teacher,' " he said. "And so we have a very eclectic group of teachers."

Baltimore's Jewish U is modeled on a program at the Atlanta JCC, although Atlanta doesn't have the synagogue participation. Wegier saw that participation as a key to success, avoiding any perception of competition with religious institutions.

"All across the country, there has been the 'turf' issue," he said. "We realized that to do this independent of the synagogues was not particularly very smart."

Rabbi Gustav Buchdahl of Temple Emanuel said Jewish U will help unify the community in the Owings Mills and Reisterstown areas, where there is less of an institutional Jewish presence than in Baltimore. Synagogues began moving to the area only about five years ago.

"I think it's giving the community shape and identity," he said. "There were pieces in place, but the pieces have not been a coherent whole. In other words, we did not have a voice or identity and this is a first step."

Jewish U is committed to "nonjudgmental teaching," Wegier said. Teachers range from secular Jews to Orthodox rabbis.

"This is not the sort of environment where you are told, 'You must believe this,' " he said.

The fee for the first course is $20, and each subsequent course is $15. Information: 410-356-5200.

Pub Date: 1/11/99

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