Teaching old dogs new tricks


By Chandrea Serebro

The Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning

If you want serious thinking and some thought-provoking learning, then The Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning is the place, with over 1000 adult students throughout South Africa and courses every week in Johannesburg at six different venues, and in Cape Town as well. “The Academy provides an empowering, text-based learning experience in a variety of areas, a place where students gain a no-holds barred knowledge combining traditional Torah approaches as well as Academic views – spanning the history of Zionism to Jewish Environmental Ethics to Tanach in a Year, as well as Jewish Philosophy and History,” explains Dean Rabbi Ramon Widmonte. The method and model was the brainchild of former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and Mark Weinberg, a”h, who sought to ensure that there was a vibrant, shared space for adult Jews to regain familiarity with Jewish texts and knowledge, including discussing and exploring their relevance for today. With the recent explosion of growth in South Africa of religious and secular institutions offering educational programmes, which have contributed to the Jewish community becoming a powerful example to other diaspora communities, there is a noticeable gap in the area of serious textual study being offered to all members of the greater community, especially those with little training in Torah texts. Additionally, a culture of discussion and debate over critical modern issues in the Jewish world has not yet been achieved within the Orthodox world in South Africa. The Academy, in association with Mizrachi South Africa and the London School of Jewish Studies, is a vibrant, modern-orthodox programme for Jewish thought, scholarship, and education; intended to inspire our community with a lifelong love of Jewish learning. With Rabbi Sacks’ partnership, the Academy has been blessed with explosive growth. The courses, which are all open to men and women, include a diverse range of subjects with something to speak to everyone. Upcoming courses include: Maimonides, Visionaries of Modern Zionism, The Pattern of Prayer, and a look at the Shir shel Yom (the Song of the Day).

For more information: www.theacademy.org.za or contact 011-485-3624.

The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI)

Being a part of something big and bold definitely has its appeal, especially when that something is vibrant enough by itself. That’s how it is with The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), the world’s largest adult education network, with 977 chapters operating in 28 countries, with courses available in 8 languages and even in Braille. To date, over 330 000 students have participated in a JLI course. Here in South Africa, JLI courses are taught at Chabad House in Savoy, Chabad’s Goodness & Kindness Centre in Sandton Central, and at multiple other locations for private group studies in offices and even in private homes. Its flagship offering, explains Rabbi Ari Kievman, Director and Presenter of JLI for Chabad South Africa, includes three six-session courses per year that run simultaneously in all locations. This way, students going on business or vacation can begin a course in Cape Town or Joburg, take a lesson in Hawaii, one in Singapore (or in any other location), and continue back here without missing a session. But perhaps the biggest appeal is its promise to provide an “aha! moment” in every lesson, which has become the standard by which all curriculum is measured, and which keeps the learners coming back for more. “Each lesson presents an original Jewish perspective on a subject, often contrasting the Torah approach with contemporary sources in the medical, legal, or psychological arenas. Many lessons open with an intriguing case study that presents a fascinating ethical conundrum, and then explores new ways of looking at the problem through a Jewish and Talmudic lens. The most defining aspect of the JLI approach is that it makes every subject relevant and deeply meaningful to the personal life of the student.” Topics range from personal enrichment and positive psychology, such as happiness and success, to medical and legal ethics, history, Israel, biblical studies, the holocaust, kabbalah, and practical issues such as parenting and marriage. All JLI courses are created in collaboration with, and endorsed by, world experts in each field. “Nobody on their deathbed ever regretted not spending enough time in the office. Career advancement plays a major role in today’s culture, but eventually people realise there is more to life than financial success. People have an innate thirst for meaning and purpose, and there’s nowhere better to find that than in Jewish wisdom. People often come to JLI courses because of the personal or professional enrichment it offers them, but once they’ve sampled it, they keep coming back for more, even when they don’t find relevance in the subject matter per se.” The present course being offered, Strength and Struggle, explores some of the fascinating stories of our Prophets while gleaning lessons from their character for our personal lives today. Each lesson is unique so if you missed one you can still enjoy the others.

For more information: www.jli.org.za

Torah City Wide, Cape Town

One of the most innovative adult-learning initiatives on the go in the Mother City at the moment is Torah City Wide (TCW), a dynamic organisation offering diverse Torah learning opportunities to Jewish Cape Town. Filled with diversity, the range of projects under its banner cater to a broad spectrum of the Jewish population, by bringing together rabbis and rebbetzins and participants from all over town, to grow and develop together at their own level and in their own area of interest.

Powered by Director Rabbi Dani Brett, TCW functions as an independent organisation, and looks to build Torah infrastructure for the city. In addition to creating their own programmes, TCW also acts like a switchboard – providing internationally and nationally acclaimed projects a foothold in the city and, in the same vein, providing a platform for superb teachers from across the city, and giving access to these exciting projects to the community members. “There is, of course, great value in people learning within their own community environments. But instead of just having pockets of people across the city learning on their own, we look to broaden the learning experiences and bring people together so that there can be cross pollination and enrichment through the extended dynamics. The participants then go back to their own communities transformed, taking what they have learned with them,” explains Rabbi Brett.

TCW offerings include the Cape Town Kollel, Dirshu, OhrSom Student, JWRP Israel trips, and the two flagship projects: Professional’s Beit Midrash for Men (PBMM) and Professional’s Beit Midrash for Women (PBMW). The latter was started five years ago by Rebbetzin Nechama Brett to cater for the growing need for inspiring, informative Torah for women from all walks of life, providing them with knowledge and values that they could readily translate into their lives. It is professional, chic, and diverse. There is a morning and an evening option, and a selection of topics ranging from beginners to advanced. Term 2 of 2016, for example, includes courses such as the Centrality of the Land of Israel, the Laws of Brachot, Tanach Personalities, Prayer, Relationships, a Jewish History Crash Course, and an advanced Mishna Berura course on the Laws of Yom Tov.

“Our philosophy,” explains Rabbi Brett, “is that people must vote with their feet, and the success of projects and topics that inspire and appeal to people will show by sheer attendance. But, of course, popularity doesn’t always mean numbers, and if there is a more niche interest for a specific course or for a more advanced level, we strive to be able to offer that as well.”

The Men’s PBM is skilled-based, to empower men to become more independent in their learning. The evening begins with a choice of mini courses in mussar, parsha, or navi, and then the core part of the programme offers various levels of gemara, as well as an advanced level taking participants from the gemara discussion to the practical halachic application. “There have been men who have grown immensely over the last few years as they move up, and we are now introducing a new course for real beginners to enter the fascinating world of Beit Midrash (style) learning.”

“The more informed people are, the more inspired they are,” says Rabbi Brett, “and at the end of the day, it is not just about the learning, but also about becoming a part of a community of learners, which is why a Beit Midrash is indeed in the fullest sense of the word.”

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