Tuesday, June 25th, 2024

The Scholar-in-Residence Shabbat: Its Educational Benefits and Challenges by Erica Brown

December 13, 2010 by  
Filed under Education, New Posts

The scholar-in-residence Shabbat is often regarded as the crowning achievement of adult education committees in synagogues throughout the country. While synagogues of every denomination continue to offer weekly classes, the popularity of the scholar-in-residence weekend has become a distinct trend in congregational education. We all remember the days, not so long ago, when it was rare for a synagogue to have even one such scholar. Perhaps there was an annual memorial lecture topped by a recognizable name in the Jewish world of scholarship, but otherwise most synagogues made due with regular classes. The bread and butter of Jewish adult education was about topic, not necessarily teacher, subject not necessarily starpower.   

While in school settings we regularly evaluate educational experiences and the instructors who provide them, in this area of synagogue adult education there is a rarely any formal assessment. Every year, I travel for such weekends, and the educator in me asks three central, evaluative questions:   

  • What is the educational worth of the lecture circuit?  
  • What do visiting scholars see as the educational benefits of these programs?
  • What can we do to improve these programs and to integrate this weekend learning into the lifeblood of the synagogue while boosting attendance at ongoing classes?

Reflecting on these questions and the issue of assessment, we turn to the words of Isa Aron, in Becoming a Congregation of Learners:   

Visitors to congregations renowned for their learning are often impressed by the profusion of programs and activities. As a result, they focus on the number of participants, how the staff is recruited, and how funds for these initiatives were raised. Rarely, however, do they ask the more important questions: What motivates members to participate? How did these learning activities come to be seen as defining features of the congregation? Concentrating on the programs themselves, rather than on how they originated, evolved, and became established, has led many to the erroneous conclusion that synagogues can be changed by the replication of successful programs. It is true that creative and effective learning opportunities are necessary, but they are hardly sufficient.[1]   

How do scholars-in-residence (SIR) contribute to a culture of learning within a congregation? If they are necessary but not sufficient in creating such a culture, then what else can be done to augment such programs so that congregational learning becomes transformational in the lives of those who participate? In order to answer these questions, we will examine the nature of these programs through the eyes of scholars themselves, through those who host scholars, and through educational literature that helps us understand why and how adults learn.   

The Benefits   

            Scholars-in-residence bring out the crowds. They are often master teachers, as well as specialists, who have important research and insights to share with us in their respective fields, in contrast to many synagogue rabbis who are generalists. We gain broader vistas than might be offered locally when hearing rabbis and educators who have traveled the Jewish world, both literally and in book form. Many inspire us to challenge ourselves or our current notions about particular subjects. Scholars in Jewish law help us grow our understanding and observance of halakha, while historians transplant us into the past. Middle East experts and sociologists can offer us perspectives on current events, Jewish sociological trends and demographics that seem murky because we may not be sufficiently informed or up-to-date. On a gender front within the Orthodox movement, some synagogues have little exposure to women who are learned and taking leadership roles in the community at large. Female SIRs can offer a future aspirational glimpse for the girls in our pews.   

            Like a good book, scholars can take us to worlds we have never visited, be they in the realm of human experience, Biblical or legal exegesis, or pages from our history books. I distinctly remember a speaker with special needs who spoke in my local synagogue about navigating her difficult world as a committed Jew. Her words, indeed her very presence, had an immense impact on her listeners. No doubt, the exposure to a universe outside our limited experience impacts our inner universe.   

What Visiting Scholars Think   

            In exploring the educational benefits of SIR weekends with some well-known scholars from a range of fields and denominations, it seems clear that exposure to big ideas, different perspectives and new methods of presentation serve as important educational benefits that such scholars provide. One scholar cautioned, however, that, “The label ‘scholar’ is abused and cheapened when it is used for, say, a layperson describing the workings of his organization….”   

            Those on the lecture circuit easily identified important benefits of being an educator who enters a congregation with a different perspective. One female historian who teaches in this capacity regularly observed that the voice of an outsider can challenge local assumptions: “Ayn navi b’ero” (No one is a prophet in his own city). In other words, being a scholar allows you to be a prophet in someone else’s city. It gives you a voice to say what you may not be able to say as directly in your own place of residence. “But it’s not just the “new” voice.  It can be a valuable experience.” In other words, there is inherent value in the promotion and engagement of a subject outside of the novelty factor. New and deeper learning is taking place.   

Another expert asserts, “People walk away stimulated, engaged, and more knowledgeable.” He bases this not on immediate reactions to his presentations alone but through the correspondence he has afterwards with participants and the level of conversation that his talks stimulate. Within synagogue life, the rabbi is not expected to be an expert in all realms of Jewish knowledge. The SIR offers an opportunity to go beyond homiletics and classical text learning and explore less traditional subjects like the Dead Sea Scrolls, Holocaust denial, parenting, Middle East policy, synagogue transformation or Jewish identity, as just a few examples.   

Many SIRS believe that weekend learning programs offer a good bridge between the scholarly and lay communities because academics come out of the ivory tower and often focus on more practical or applied wisdom. In the words of a visiting scholar:   

My weekends tend to be focused on how synagogues can transform themselves. My first talk puts synagogue life into a historical and sociological perspective. But my second and third presentations get more practical, showing how services can be more interactive and then doing some text study to show that the new modalities are not out of synch with Jewish teaching. My final session is a hands-on board workshop to put the leadership onto a path of transformation.   

With this trajectory of study and integration into the life of the synagogue, this rabbi feels that his presentations are designed to challenge those in synagogue life to behave differently, and thus are a lot more than educational entertainment. They have the power to change synagogue life.   

In this sense, the program has important benefits for the speaker as well as the listener since it enables those from the world of ideas to see what is happening within “live” Jewish communities, forcing scholars out of their comfort zone. A number of scholars interviewed said that their visits to communities help them try out topics and get to know the landscape of American Jewry “from the trenches.” Consequently, most of the educators interviewed felt that such weekends were a learning experience for them as well.   

When asked if they perceive their role as an educator or an entertainer, most felt that a combination of the two was critical. Dry, academic learning did not make for engaging talks. One academic said that as he began his speaking career, he was taken aside by a well-known rabbi and told that he should learn a lot of jokes, and then (“when the audience isn’t looking”) throw in a little Torah. Even with the humor, he shared that he is very much an educator and not an entertainer.    

While as a teacher I understand…that an audience that laughs may learn better, all of my lectures have solid intellectual and academic content.  Most American Jews today are college educated and expect to be talked up to, not talked down to.   

He finds that in teaching his subject, one of the educational benefits is clarifying wrong assumptions or information in his field.  He believes that as a result of his teaching, he has “stimulated listeners to read more, learn more and to appreciate that the past carries lessons for the present and future.”   

SIRs who do not take their audience seriously or condescend to them have little chance of making a positive impression or an educational impact.  While most synagogue members may not be experts in the scholar’s subject matter, they are, nevertheless, usually highly-educated and thoughtful and resent when a speaker “dumbs down” his or her talks. They look forward to and expect sophisticated presentations. Another lecturer said that he repeatedly hears participants say that they are “starved” or ” thirst” for learning since they are not getting this particular style of study in their synagogue. “If they’re hungry for more after an SIR comes,” that is sufficient justification for the educational worth of such programming.   

Stimulating Thought or Challenging the Rabbi?   

One scholar believes that as an SIR, he is there to challenge the norm but also aware that when he leaves, people have to live with that norm. “I’m there to shake things up.” In that sense, he understands that his presence may present a challenge to the rabbi. On the one hand, he is there to strengthen Jewish feeling and commitment that will potentially assist the rabbi in his own long-term goals for his congregation; on the other hand, he believes that the biggest challenge of such programs is their potential to undermine the current professional leadership in a synagogue. “When a person says to me, in front of the rabbi, ‘It’s such a breath of fresh air to have you here,’ I understand the criticism he is also offering of the rabbi.” To overcome this challenge, this SIR makes a concerted effort to praise the rabbi in specific detail before he begins his presentations in order that the congregation value their leadership. “The trick is not to make the rabbi look bad.”   

Visiting scholars warned of situations where the SIR is brought in to rock the boat and intentionally undermine the rabbi or the board on an issue. To illustrate, one SIR shared a weekend he labeled a “disaster” since he was brought in to offer his guidance on women’s issues in a synagogue whose rabbi was ultra-conservative when it came to gender-based policies. The synagogue clearly wanted and expected him to present the more liberal position he generally takes with his own congregation. To add to the tension, the rabbi of the congregation was not present for that Shabbat, and this SIR clearly felt that he was being used to create dissension between the rabbi and his constituents. He advises SIRs to keep away from such situations by exploring the expectations beforehand and any unarticulated assumptions of those bringing in scholars to speak. A scholar can inadvertently step into a quagmire of complication where the voice of an outsider is being used as leverage or ammunition, an unenviable position.  The scholar should make sure that there is no agenda behind the invitation.   

Unwanted Expectations   

A number of SIRS were also uncomfortable offering homiletics in the Shabbat sermon as is often requested of visiting scholars. Understandably, the timing of the sermon offers the maximum opportunity for exposure to the entire congregation with the hopes that the initial talk will inspire people to come back to later sessions. A number of speakers commented, however, that they were not interested in offering sound-bytes but in giving proper lectures in their expertise not constrained by the 20 minute time limit or by the mandate to give a sermon on the Torah portion when they are really specialists in an unrelated field. “Let the rabbi do what he does best, and let me do what I do best.”   

In the words of another academic,   

…I think shuls sometimes misuse scholars by asking them to give the derasha (sermon). Their own rabbis are trained and skilled in that; an academician often is not particularly good at it. Why not have him/her teach…? Isn’t it a waste of an opportunity to hear what they couldn’t get otherwise?   

The time limits of a sermon or the request to speak on the weekly Torah portion can go beyond the scholar’s comfort level and may not be a good use of his or her talents and background. One SIR resolved this by insisting that he speak after Kiddush and give a full hour presentation without the distraction of food and fidgeting before services are over.   

            At issue are two separate challenges: timing and duration are one issue and should be made absolutely clear beforehand. Some scholars are only told how long to speak for in any given slot on the day they are actually speaking. They may have been asked to address a complex subject and prepared accordingly only to find that they were given a mere fifteen minutes for the subject’s explication. Some scholars are also not sufficiently sensitive about timing and delay the service’s end by half an hour, which can throw off the schedule of other activities taking place in the synagogue like day-care, youth services and catering.  The other challenge lies in style and content; those who determine the SIRs for the year often have strong intellectual interests that may or may not be shared by other members of the congregation or sometimes have scholarly friends or relatives and arrange for them to visit and speak but who do not have wide appeal.  Such speakers may be too academic, too insular or too political for a particular congregation. It can be very hard to “get it right” in terms of the proper level and topic, as will be mentioned later.   

Financial Issues   

Every scholar I spoke to was financially motivated to join the ranks of SIRs since the lecture circuit provides an important supplemental income. Most (but not all) found, to their surprise, that even though they were driven by financial concerns, they really enjoyed the experience:   

I went into this because my university doesn’t pay well, and it’s expensive to live. I had a wife and three kids. When I started 30 years ago I was making $11,000 at a time when synagogues wanted to know about liturgy, identity, synagogue transformation and leadership. I could do that and I needed the money. But eventually I really began to love meeting people. Wherever I went I asked people about Jewish life and their communities. I walked away having learned a lot about Jewish life in the country. I felt that it was part of my research. It was like having a focus group wherever I went. On Saturday nights I would have focus groups on spirituality because people don’t like to talk about spirituality.  But they started.   

The financial dimension of SIR weekends,however, has its own challenges. Few SIR programs involve formal contracts. As a result, some speakers expressed frustration when congregations haggle over speaker fees or want a discount as a non-profit. “I only work for non-profits,” said one female lecturer.   

I find the way that some people try to get something on the cheap is personally demeaning. Honestly, I’m less willing to do the traveling and put in the energy if a rabbi or synagogue member argues about the honorarium beforehand. After all, I am giving up my whole Shabbat at home with my family. I happen to know that most of my male colleagues are making the same thing or more than I’ve asked for and have spoken in the same synagogues. Why should I teach for less when other synagogues are happy to accommodate my fee? If the fee is too expensive then find an alternative.  And please don’t bad mouth me since the Jewish community is small. If you don’t tell people how expensive I am, I won’t tell them how cheap you are.   

Another scholar added, “I discovered that it takes the same energy to give a $3000 lecture as a $500 lecture.” He is eager to investigate whether this is also true of $30,000 lectures but has not yet been invited to try. One scholar pointed out that he feels it should be standard practice to pay the scholar immediately after the weekend – in keeping with the Torah mandate to pay a worker upon completion of a job – and in private.   

The only thing worse than being handed a check in front of other people on a Saturday night or Sunday is not being handed a check at all and having to call weeks later (sometimes more than once) to find out where the payment is. Sometimes when we use the term ‘honorarium’ it sounds like it’s optional rather than a fee for services rendered.   

One scholar was more blunt about the financial aspect, “Scholars want to earn money – that is their motivation – so where is the educational animus?” He believes that despite the financial motivation that drives many to the lecture circuit, the top speakers really do care about doing an excellent job and penetrating the minds of their respective audiences. Despite this, he believes that the “money is also an issue now” because he is getting fewer and fewer requests given the economic downturn.   

How are fees for such weekends determined? Some synagogues have a flat rate, which is generally the most equitable approach. Even then, negotiations take place for speakers who generally charge more than the flat rate and are sought after around the country. Most speakers have flat rates as well, but there is often little communication in the synagogue world about what SIR fees should generally be. There is no assumed “going-rate,” which can lead to disappointment, discomfort and disrespect in extreme cases. One scholar recommends that synagogues ask for individual rates up-front rather than review all of the logistics and then dangle the honorarium at the end. Any mismatch of expectations can then be clarified from the outset. 

In addition to the financial issues from the scholars’ viewpoint, certain physical conditions enable visiting scholars to feel comfortable when traveling but are not always directly articulated or automatically provided. Scholars appreciate a warm welcome and interesting conversation. One scholar shared that once his host was unable, for medical reasons, to hear him speak. Upon the scholar’s return to the house, the host asked for a summation. The scholar began to share his presentation but was quickly stopped: “Ah, just tell me your opening joke.” Not everyone is interested in scintillating conversation.   

More than one scholar expressed that some basic physical requirements are not always accommodated or obvious to the hosting congregation:  a private bedroom, a private, attached bathroom, comfortable flying arrangements (particularly if the flights are at difficult times or significant distances from home), thoughtfulness to dietary restrictions and travel times. Many speakers would appreciate being able to bring a spouse when airline tickets are necessary since they spend so many Shabbatot on the road.   

Scholars are generally expected to speak a number of times and are approached continuously over the course of a weekend on a private basis. While informal contact is important in making connections to the community, it can get overwhelming. One young scholar told me that he left the circuit for this particular reason. It was physically and psychically too draining to have no Shabbat of his own. Consequently, it is important that someone ‘protects’ private space and time to make sure that SIRs have a chance to rest. Late night meals followed by private consultations can be very demanding. It can be challenging to be “on” even when not speaking and maintain the requisite energy to do a good job lecturing, which is the primary reason for the visit. Some SIRs complained that because they were brought in to a community at considerable expense, they are expected to be “on call” for the entire Shabbat or weekend with hardly a break. A person who recently hosted a speaker in his community confided to me that this scholar visiting from Israel had not a minute to herself the whole weekend. Before he went to synagogue, he complained that there were a few people he didn’t even know speaking with her in his dining room early Shabbat morning before services. Visiting scholars often lose their Shabbat rest in an attempt to create a meaningful Shabbat experience for others. They may agree to that but also find themselves drained of the energy to do a good job for their primary speaking responsibilities.   

In terms of unarticulated expectations, I was witness years ago to a remarkable conversation at my kitchen table when a well known SIR stayed with our family for the weekend. After Shabbat, he received a phone call to our home number from a resident of the community who was not a member of the synagogue in which this scholar spoke. The caller was clearly sharing personal details of his marital situation with the SIR on the assumption that wisdom in one area spilled over to others. The visiting scholar, obviously trying to balance a genuine display of compassion while maintaining his own professional authenticity, told the caller that he was very sorry about his difficult personal situation but that he did not know him at all and was not trained in psychology, and thus unable to give him the advice he sought. The caller persisted. The scholar maintained his position, and the call ended rather abruptly after reaching an impasse.   

Another unarticulated expectation of the SIR may lie with the congregational rabbi hosting the weekend. The congregational rabbi often views the scholar’s visit as a good time to talk shop or sometimes vent steam to a colleague. The rabbinate can be a lonely business and the counsel or simple company of another professional is a welcome opportunity for camaraderie. These conversations are obviously not part of the formal understanding of the SIR role but can consume a lot of the scholar’s time. Most scholars welcome this aspect of the weekend, but felt it may best be accommodated by a call before the weekend to establish an official time to speak, rather than the midnight hour on Friday night.   

Despite some of the challenges , most scholars felt that these weekends are wonderful ways to see former students, colleagues and friends around the country  or the world and rekindle connections, in addition to getting to know new communities. 

Hosting a Scholar   

Of those I interviewed who host SIR weekends, it seems common for many congregations to host scholars between 4-8 times annually, usually every 6-8 weeks. Because scholars may be traveling from Israel or are only available at certain times of the year, some synagogues go from feast to famine in terms of their SIR programs. Adult education committees often ask scholars a year in advance.  Yet they then become tangled in date requests because of synagogue events like bar and bat mitzvot or are subject to the academic calendar and conference schedules of academics and rabbis. While congregations often wonder why a glut of scholars appear in a synagogue and then for months the pulpit is occupied only by the rabbi, this has more to do with managing difficult travel schedules than intentional design.    

Many synagogues budget about $10,000-$20,000 per year to facilitate SIR programs, but most claim that they have to do special fund-raising on top of their current budget to accommodate specific scholars or specific programs, such as a world-famous figure or having a SIR for Shavuot, a longer holiday that brings up the cost of the scholar to the community. With the economic downturn, a synagogue in a large metropolitan area that used to host about 8 scholars a year had just 2 in the past year because of financial factors. Many scholars who are well sought after are simply out of the budget range for many congregations. It will be interesting to see if, over time, congregations pull back and host fewer per year because of the cost. Some scholars claim that they, too, have lost what was once a healthy supplemental income because they have had either cancellations, postponements or fewer requests to speak because of financial constraints. One popular circuit lecturer lowered his speaking fee significantly this past year after receiving fewer requests. Many, however, feel that they cannot afford to lower their honoraria because they are speaking less than they once did. One rabbi believes that these programs are in decline:   

I observed that already in the 90s the number of programs has gone down. People don’t want to come out, even if you’re good. People are over-booked. Synagogues should not be in the business of keeping busy people busier. What we should be doing is quality programs. I only get the 50-and-up crowd because these are people who grew up doing these, but by Sunday morning, it’s a small crowd. It used to be hundreds. Now lots of stuff is on the Internet, and we are less important in their lives.   

 One hosting rabbi commented that these programs are important because they stimulate and ferment ideas. He believes, as did other hosts, that a major challenge is finding a scholar who appeals across the entire congregation and identifying scholars with innovative and challenging ideas that help shape communal thinking on important issues. In the words of this rabbi,   

When a community has various constituencies and age cohorts, it is not always possible to find SIR’s that will be equally attractive to all. I believe that there is a value in annually having at least one woman, someone who relates well to youth, someone who is more scholarly, someone who can speak authoritatively but not with bias about Israeli issues, someone who is active in general society and brings a religious perspective to bear, etc.   

When asked if such programming has an impact on adult education programs during the week, most felt that it did not because their mid-week classes generally did not have significant attendance.   

…it’s hard to get a lot of people out on a weeknight, for either a class or a special lecture. Doing it over Shabbat gives us the opportunity to provide excellent educational programming to the community, achieve economies of scale, so to speak, by taking advantage of the fact that people like to be in shul, around friends, etc., on any given Shabbat, and we can maximize face time– not just with the scholar, but with the shul. It also provides us with the opportunity to introduce the scholar to our community. Having a communal meal with the scholar provides the scholar and the community intimate time with each other, not just lecture time, which can be impersonal at times.     

Did the roster of scholars diminish in any way from attendance at regularly scheduled classes? Have scholar-in-residence programs challenged some of the fundamental notions we have about what continuing education should look like? Have sporadic Shabbat lectures by “big names” replaced a more solid, ongoing commitment to Torah study? With the financial cost and the potential cost to ongoing learning, it is fair to ask some difficult questions about the lasting educational worth of scholar-in-residence programs, if only so that synagogue rabbis and adult education committees can be more realistic in educational goal setting. Virtually all scholars and hosting rabbis I spoke to for this article said that, if anything, having outside scholars spurred people to more learning rather than less learning. And yet, given what we know about how and why adults continue learning, we may need to shape these programs in such a way that their impact is more extensive and enduring.   

Why Adults Learn   

            Adults view Jewish study as having multiple benefits. In an informal poll of a group of my own adult learners, they identified both intrinsic and extrinsic goals that brought them back to the classroom. They attend classes to:   

  • Create community
  • To fulfill an obligation to study (the mitzva of Talmud Torah)
  • Cement friendships
  • Encounter spirituality
  • Develop resources – tools for future knowledge
  • Strengthen Jewish identity
  • Use hard-earned time well
  • Build Jewish confidence
  • Be better parents
  • Exercise the mind
  • Stimulate intellectual needs
  • Answer questions
  • Forge meaning
  • Manage transitional times

While many of these goals can be accomplished through SIR programs, the majority of them require intensive, interactive and on-going commitment.   

             The goal of most sustained, regular learning is to feel inspired by classical Jewish literature and its messages, to gain mastery of textual intricacies, or to be equipped with the requisite information to observe laws and rituals properly. Being able to read and to relate to texts creates a touch-point with ultimate questions and offers a nexus of language; it connects us to a living past, offers us a way to connect with those around us and offers a language of connection to those not yet born.   

Text is our language of meaning, continuity and depth. It is platform and lodestar, moral compass and anchor.  Barry Holtz, in his introduction to Back to the Sources, contends that Jewish text study leads to self-understanding:   

These are not only the books that one reads and rereads and sets on the shelf. They live, too, in the context of hours of human repartee, of struggle and illumination in community. Part of the great allure of study for Jews over the centuries must have some connection to this interpersonal domain. [2]   

In addition, the process of learning is about community building and nesting ideas within the context of relationships that will have enduring meaning over time. It is hard to achieve this over a weekend, but it can be stimulated though a weekend of study.   

On a personal rather than communal level, Roberta Louis Goodman and Betsy Dolgin Katz write in The Adult Jewish Education Handbook that:   

Learning is a way of strengthening one’s Jewish identity and connection to our tradition. Additionally, since much of Jewish learning is done with others, it augments community building. Through studying together, people get to know one another in a personal, often deep and meaningful way. These study experiences can lead to friendships as well as the formation of havurot that gather for celebrations, holiday observances, and the doing of ma’asim tovim – righteous deeds.[3]   

Professor of education Michael Rosenak, in his article on the educated Jew in Visions of Jewish Education, argues convincingly that although it seems quite fragile, “there is still a common cultural language, a kind of ‘plausibility structure’ among Jews.”[4] Part of the common language of Jews is, according to Rosenak, the “communal approach to the study of the sacred literature of Judaism.” We do this by exposing people to our “culture and spirit in a primary and foundational way.”[5] In other words, Jewish adult education is not only, or perhaps primarily, about self-discovery, as it is about creating a language of meaning with other people, those beside us, before us and those yet to be.   

The creation of community and identity require more than episodic inspiration. One and two year programs of adult study notably forge the kind of interactions and knowledge that many adults crave. Yet fewer and fewer people make the time for these classes, even those committed to the mitzva of Talmud Torah, on-going, regular Torah study.   

Dolgin-Katz and Goodman also sensitize us to the value that adults place in feeling both competent and confident in their Jewish lives and how adult education can help in that process.   

Learning can provide the skills and knowledge that augment an adult’s feelings of confidence as a Jew. Adults used to feeling competent in their work, relationships, special interests, volunteer roles, and family life want likewise to be confident in performing rituals in the home or synagogue, in prayer, in answering questions of non-Jewish friends or colleagues, and in grappling with difficult questions about life and death, good and evil, and purpose and direction. They want to be able to find resources and to use the tools that can help them access answers. Unfamiliar often with the vocabulary of Jewish life, and even less adept at understanding Hebrew or translating Hebrew texts, they still want to know enough to feel included in the Jewish venture.[6]   

Jews of all denominational streams want to know more on the path to doing more, or want to understand what they are currently doing within a historical or spiritual framework. They often lack the tools or resources to go it alone and benefit profoundly from the presence of a Jewish teacher/mentor in their lives. Adults beset by the illusion that growing up means knowing everything are relived to have people in their lives in multiple disciplines with whom they can confide and with whom they can seek guidance.   

Diane Tickton Schuster, author of Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning, believes that what prompts adult learning outside of the legal mandate to study is that something challenges previously held assumptions.   

When Jewish adults have disruptive or “disorienting” experiences that challenge previously held worldviews, they sometimes wonder if Judaism can help them to “understand” their situation in new ways. When these adults embark on new meaning-making, new learning can transform their view of themselves as Jews…As Jewish adults mature and grapple with pressing questions and ambiguities, they discover paradoxes in their thinking about Judaism and their lives as Jews…When Jewish adults are grappling with questions of meaning, they find it beneficial to engage in learning and discourse with other learners…[7]    

She divides adult students into what she calls five positions of knowledge:   

Silent knowers – Don’t know they have the right to know, or are not sure how to acquire knowledge, or shy away from learning.   

Received knowers – See knowledge as something they get from outside resources and depend on others to form opinions.   

Subjective knowers- Rely on personal experience as a basis for knowledge.    

Procedural knowers –  Trying to gain expertise and want to develop tools for knowing.   

Constructed knowers – Want to have ownership of the material through analysis and sharing knowledge with others.[8]   

Scholar-in-residence programs are excellent for silent and received knowers but fall short in most of the other categories. Those wanting to have first-hand experience, gain tools and mastery or feel ownership will not necessarily receive that from a visiting scholar’s presentation, although that scholar may stimulate them to make a longer-term commitment to learning and help them adjust their thinking on a particular Jewish idea. And perhaps this factor is something that scholars should take into account as they enter a community and regard one of their goals as encouraging future study.   

Few synagogues have repeat performances of the same scholar over multiple years but this may also help strengthen and deepen the learning process within a synagogue culture. The “variety show” approach of exposure to many thinkers may have less educational impact than deepening a congregation’s relationship to a few scholars. I personally know of no synagogue that employs this thinking.   

If the outside scholar has the ear of the congregation in a way that others may not, it may be incumbent upon the scholar to give congregants a charge: zil u’gmor, go out and learn. If adult education is there to make us competent, confident, spiritually open and better-practicing Jews then scholars may want to give more thought to shaping their presentations to accommodate these needs in more active ways. Make recommendations for further reading. Make sessions more interactive. Provide bibliographies. Encourage book groups and study sessions as a follow-up. Rabbis should leverage these learning opportunities with theme-based classes that continue the conversation and help transition people into more ongoing study. Use the scholar to speak to different age cohorts or special interest groups.  Few synagogues use visiting scholars to speak to teens and yet this population would greatly benefit from hearing exciting developments in the larger Jewish world. The worst outcome for such a weekend is for a listener to arrive at the conclusion: “So what?” instead of “Now what?” or feel inspired to grow and learn but have no ready address in which to do that.   

The popularity of the scholars-in-residence should not mask the need to ask and answer the difficult educational questions that such programs surface. The economic constraints may have a beneficial outcome in that synagogues may use fewer scholars but use them in more intensive and thoughtful ways as part of an ongoing investment in a theme or topic.  For example, a congregation may be asked to read a book that the SIR has written, have small book groups around the community to discuss the book. The scholar can then come into the community and share his or her thoughts on the topic and the weekend can be followed by classes on a related topic. One rabbi now comes into synagogues, gives talks but also spends a whole day with a board talking about synagogue transformation. When coupled with a charge, with preparation from the congregational rabbi before and follow-up, the scholar-in-residence program can help adults achieve their articulated and unarticulated learning goals and create a shared language of study across a community.   

One of the great benefits of visiting scholars is that they infuse a congregation with intellectual sophistication. One scholar worries that now that there are fewer of these programs, synagogues may drive themselves into intellectual irrelevance. He adds, “Synagogues shouldn’t be in the ‘want’ business, trying to figure out what people want. People don’t always know their own spiritual needs.  A skilled speaker can raise the level of what Judaism can provide them without them ever having asked for it.” The SIR weekend as a stand alone experience, risks turning scholarship into edutainment. But when congregations use the SIR platform to saturate people with new ideas, challenges, and future study and conversations opportunities, the synagogue becomes not only a place of prayer but a place where critical dialogue about Jewish life begins.   

Dr. Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her latest book is Confronting Scandal. She can be reached through her website: leadingwithmeaning.com. 


[1] Isa Aron, Becoming a Congregation of Learners (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2002), p..79-80.   

[2] Barry Holtz, Back to the Sources (New York: Touchstone, 1992), p. 19.   

[3] Roberta Louis Goodman and Betsy Dolgin Katz, The Adult Jewish Education Handbook (Springfield, NJ: A.R.E. Publishing, 1990).   

[4] Michael Rosenak, “Educated Jews: Common Element s,” Visions of Jewish Education, eds. Seymour Fox, Israel Scheffler, Daniel Marom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 192.    

[5] Ibid.   

[6] Goodman, Katz, The Adult Jewish Education Handbook   

[7] Diane Tickton Schuster, Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning (New York: UAHC Press, 2003), p.115.   

[8] Created by Diane Tickton Schuster as seen in Becoming a Congregation of Learners, pp. 180-181.

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