Last fall, I enrolled in a weekly creative writing “beit midrash” to deepen my own memoir writing. This particular beit midrash, a term that literally translates as “house of learning,” comprised eight people coming together to explore how Jewish texts can inform their writing. Through a joint initiative called Open Circle Jewish Learning, CJP and Hebrew College laid the foundation for this particular house.
Open Circle Jewish Learning is a direct response to CJP’s mandate to provide more informal educational experiences to the adult Jewish community. Laura Baum, associate vice president of Learning and Engagement at CJP, told JewishBoston this new initiative takes its place among “a robust CJP lineup with Me’ah, Eser and Parenting Through a Jewish Lens. We were looking for more informal Jewish learning opportunities that didn’t just happen in the classroom, but in living rooms, synagogues and even coffee shops.” Baum emphasized that Open Circle Jewish Learning is a flexible yet structured solution to people asking for more informal learning opportunities.
Betsy More, associate director of Open Circle Jewish Learning, added: “We want this program to open up adult Jewish learning to the widest possible audience and the widest possible range of interests. There is so much to explore, and Open Circle is a place that is open pretty much to all of it.” Both More and Baum noted that Open Circle staff want suggestions for additional courses. “If anyone has a group of people who want to pursue a specific topic, we can help organize registration and find a teacher to make that happen,” said More.
Seminars in this new initiative fall under four categories. The first, “People of the Book,” provides a fresh approach to Torah and Jewish text studies. A second category will encompass “Mindful Living,” with spring sessions focusing on Torah, climate and “mussar,” a Jewish movement that takes a contemplative and moral approach to considering various personal traits. “Food for Thought” explores wine tasting and Jewish culture, and offers a gastronomic journey that coincides with the Jewish calendar. “There’s tremendous range,” More said, with the fourth category, “Salons.” One of the classes she pointed to is called “Honor Thy Children: Jewish Parenting Through a Divorced Lens,” which is a “wonderful opportunity for people looking to maintain a peaceful home during a challenging time and to stay healthy and positive,” she said.
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Rachel Adelman, a poet and teacher at Hebrew College’s rabbinical school, and Tamar Biala, an Israeli feminist scholar and writer, led the beit midrash writing group with which I was involved. Their goal was to create a learning environment modeled on the beit midrash where they studied together in Jerusalem. “There were a multiplicity of voices in that Israeli beit midrash,” said Adelman. “There is a surge of creativity happening in writing and filmmaking in Israel that is centered on Hebrew language and culture, which engages with and contributes to the ‘Jewish bookshelf.’ I wanted to do something like that for the Jewish community in Boston. I believe Judaism should be creative, relevant and vibrant. To do that we need to engage people’s personal voices in dialogue with Jewish traditional texts.”
The first six sessions of our creative writing beit midrash focused on the theme of home as a point of desire and loss. Among the stories we studied were Hagar’s banishment from the house of Abraham, Rebecca leaving home to marry Isaac and Abraham taking his own leave. “People were willing to respond to the traditional texts through a variety of genres, whether it was poetry, memoir or even writing a letter,” Adelman said.
Next semester Adelman plans to “move away from the question of home and talk more broadly about the nature of relationships,” she said. By concentrating on unconventional relationships in the Tanakh—specifically Ruth, Naomi, David and Jonathan—she hopes to explore the question, “Is there such a thing as unconditional love?” The subject will also encompass the mother-stepchild relationship. “If we can’t find models of that relationship in the Tanakh,” said Adelman, “where do we look for them? How do we get away from stereotypes to talk honestly about these relationships?”
For Baum, Open Circle Jewish Learning’s approach adds depth to adult Jewish learning. “We recognize that to have a Jewish community we need people to understand Jewish history, culture and heritage,” she noted. “Jewish learning happens beyond the bar mitzvah. It’s the key to the Jewish present and the key to the Jewish future.”
To find more information on Open Circle Jewish Learning and to register for classes, click here.