SAN RAFAEL, Calif., March 2 (JTA) - In this tony enclave in Marin County, a San Francisco suburb once known for its hot tubs and encounter groups, 20 largely middle-aged professionals gathered one recent Monday to begin an eight-week course in The Kabbalah of Time.
It was a typical group for Marin: a handful of retired professors, a lawyer or two and a half-dozen therapists. Leading the class was Chabad Rabbi Yisrael Rice.
“Behind everything there is a divine dynamic, which kabbalah reveals,” Rice begins, setting the tone for what will be a very complex and intellectually demanding 90 minutes.
“In order to correspond with that divine energy, we need tools, an interface, which has to have an element of both things it is connecting. In the world, that interface is the soul. In this course, we’ll look at the soul of time.”
Rice, chairman of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute’s editorial board, asks members of the group why they’re there.
“I’m trying to put some things together,” one man says.
“I’m trying to fix a broken link,” the women next to him says.
“Where am I going? God willing, I’m going closer,” the next woman says.
Billed as a mystical approach to the concepts of time and the Jewish calendar, The Kabbalah of Time is the 14th course in adult Jewish literacy offered by JLI, a seven-year-old project of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
JLI is just one of many new initiatives in adult Jewish education; what sets it apart from the pack is the magnitude of its logistics.
The same week that Kabbalah of Time kicked off in San Rafael, the course was launched in more than 160 other cities in 12 countries. Thousands of students in the same eight-week course using the same textbook, the same audio-visual presentation, taught by teachers trained at the same Chabad-run annual seminar — it’s a daunting undertaking.
The first JLI course, Jewish Mysticism, was piloted in 15 Chabad centers in 1999, says Brooklyn-based director Rabbi Efraim Mintz. Each year the program added 15 or 20 new cities, growing slowly until last year, when it mushroomed by 40 new cities.
“Everyone teaches the very same thing the same week,” Mintz says. “If you’re in California and fly to Cleveland or Melbourne, you can pick it up there.”
Mel Diamond of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is on his 10th JLI course. He compares notes after each class with his brother in Poway, Calif., in a kind of email chevruta.
“It’s like studying Talmud again,” says Diamond, who graduated from yeshiva.
Each year, JLI offers three six- to eight-week courses: one on basic Judaism, one on kabbalah and one dealing with a contemporary issue. Each is written by one or more authors, reviewed by the institute’s editorial board and taught as a pilot course before adoption.
In line with Chabad’s general philosophy, the classes focus on spiritual nourishment rather than pure intellectual study. The texts and classroom discussion are at a high academic level, but JLI’s rabbi-teachers stress that they’re also trying to provide students with Jewish tools that will inform their daily decisions.
“In many disciplines, intellectual pursuit and real life skills are mutually exclusive,” Mintz says. “We try to bring them together, to take ancient texts and make them relevant to our lives.”
Linda Bailin signed up for her first JLI course in Philadelphia “to understand myself better.” At age 54, she says, “you start to search for meaning. I have a lot of feelings inside myself, they’re there because I’m Jewish, and I want to understand them.”
Like many new JLI students, Bailin grew up with little Jewish background. Now she says she brings what she learns home with her. In her case, that means lighting Shabbat candles and “trying not to do anything on Shabbat.”
Last year she dragged her 22-year-old daughter to a JLI class, and now the daughter is going on a birthright israel trip. JLI has “changed my whole outlook on life,” Bailin said.
That’s where JLI differs from Me’ah, the two-year adult education program run by Boston’s Hebrew College. Me’ah’s curriculum covers Jewish history and Bible in chronological order and is designed mainly for adults who have a broad Jewish education and want to “fill in the gaps,” administrative director Raylea Pemstein says.
Those who come to Me’ah “say things like, ‘my children are in day school and I don’t always have answers to their questions,’ or ‘my children are out of the house and I want to do something for myself now,’” Pemstein says.
The classes are taught by professors, whereas JLI is taught by rabbis.
“There are people who come to Me’ah looking for that spiritual piece, but we advertise it as an academic course,” she says.
JLI started out much like Me’ah, says Chana Silberstein, Chabad emissary to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. and a member of JLI’s stable of authors. It developed a more spiritual focus because of student demand, she says.
Not all JLI students are looking to fill spiritual needs. Brian Romer has edited several books on kabbalah as the Jewish Studies acquisition editor for Rowman & Littlefield Publishers in Portland, Ore. He signed up for the JLI course out of professional curiosity.
“I wanted to see how Chabad would present it,” he says, noting that Chabad’s “literal perspective” on the Bible comes through strongly but isn’t forced on the class.
That underlying perspective is what worries Rabbi Leon Morris, director of the five-year-old Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning run by Reform Temple Emanu-El in New York City.
Noting that 40 percent of Skirball’s students are not affiliated with any congregation, and 7 percent are members of Orthodox shuls, Morris said his program doesn’t aim to direct students toward a particular view on Jewish observance.
“The goal of a course on the history and development of Shabbat is not necessarily to have people light candles at the end,” he says. “That may be one result, but there are many ways to connect to the Jewish people and tradition.”
That’s something Rice might agree with — to a point.
“Our agenda is not to make people frum, but to help them grow,” he insists.
And what is growth?
“At the most basic level, studying Torah,” he said. “Look at this room - 20 people studying Torah, some of them for the first time. That’s growth.”