Readers respond to Jewish Federation decision to drop adult learning classes
A few weeks ago, I received the news that the Jewish Federation’s Adult Education program, CJL, would be summarily eliminated and staffers Cyndee Levy and Rabbi Tracy Nathan would be terminated on May 31 (staff was given the obligatory two-week notice). Having been both a consumer of, and a facilitator for CJL (formerly CAJE) programs, and having found them to be of immense value and fulfillment, I was shocked and saddened by this news.
In addition to the already stated concerns of lack of wisdom and vision, there is another significant concern: lack of compassion.
The two staff members who were terminated were two people dedicated to their mission. Cyndee Levy was an 18 (chai) year member of the Federation staff, first with CAJE and then with CJL. Rabbi Tracy Nathan is a gifted educator who organized the CJL offerings for the last three years. Both were terminated without cause at a time when there are over 30 million Americans who are unemployed. Initially I assumed this was COVID-19 related, but I was quickly disabused of that thought. So I am left to ask, how could a Jewish agency, a pillar of our community, act with such a lack of compassion at this time. Where is the rachmones (compassion)?
No wisdom, no vision, no compassion. This is a problem for the organization that leads our Jewish community.
Kathleen Sitzer, St. Louis
I started taking CAJE (now CJL) classes in the early 1990s and was disappointed to learn that this form of adult education was no longer to be offered. As a member and past president of Congregation Shaare Emeth, I have enjoyed studying with our rabbis Jeff Stiffman, Jim Bennett, Andrea Goldstein and Cantor Seth Warner. But the CAJE/CJL program allowed me to study with other rabbis in the community and expand my comfort zone. I learned much from Rabbi Ephraim Zimand of blessed memory and more recently from Rabbi Seth Gordon. I had the good fortune also to be in classes taught by inspiring lay teachers including Dr. Bob Taxman, Pearl Borow and Bob Cohn. Perhaps even more than the diversity these teachers represented was the opportunity to study with adults from other congregations and backgrounds who offered different perspectives of Judaism. There is no other place in our community where these kinds of learning opportunities are offered. I would have thought the Federation would do everything possible to strengthen this program instead of throwing it away.
Carl Moskowitz, Creve Coeur
The decision by the leadership of the Jewish Federation to discontinue the Center for Jewish Learning (CJL) adult education classes was wrong. The reason, “duplicating or competing with other institutions and synagogues” is disingenuous at the very least. Education, learning, knowledge at all ages and stages of life are integral to Judaism. How can we, known as “the people of the book” have too much education about ourselves, our beliefs, our traditions, our history?
If duplication or competition were the concern, how is it that we have so many duplicated congregations from the same denomination all teaching basically the same thing with a slightly different emphasis? Based on the Federation’s reasons, there should instead be just one Reform congregation, one Conservative congregation, one Orthodox congregation, one Modern Orthodox congregation, one Reconstructionist congregation, one Chabad and one unaffiliated congregation. That would eliminate duplication and competition.
I have taken classes first at CAJE and after the merger with CJL. There is no duplication in course study with congregations. There is no bias toward one tradition or the other by the instructors who represent the various sectors of Jewish belief. CJL is an addition to congregational Jewish learning, not competition. I don’t know how many congregations would have offered the excellent CJL course taught last winter by Rabbi Mark Shook on Judaism’s interpretation of the New Testament. The students in that class would have been happy to continue to study with Rabbi Shook for months.
Every Jew in St. Louis does not belong to a congregation and CJL was a way for them to study and learn. To be part of the community. Furthermore, there are many who do belong to congregations and also attend classes at CJL. There are also non-Jews who attend CJL to learn about Judaism. That will end.
What induced Federation leaders to decide to remove this opportunity to learn? What were the determining factors? If there were genuine, systemic problems within the adult education program, they should be reviewed with an eye toward making whatever change is necessary, not to discontinue the program.
Pirke Avot teaches us: Do not say I will study when I have the time, for the time may never come. With this decision by the Federation, that time has now come.
Rosalyn Borg, St. Louis
Along with many others in the Jewish community, I am dismayed and deeply troubled by the recent Federation decision to cancel its Jewish Learning program (CJL).
Jewish education has been an essential bedrock of our community and one could argue that it has helped enable us to survive and prosper for more than three millennia despite hardships and obstacles. Canceling the CJL program at a time of rising anti-Semitism throughout the world, declining membership in many synagogues, increasing secularism among young people, and an overall growing lack of involvement in the Jewish community seems difficult for one to comprehend, especially this timing.
The Jewish Light article quotes a Federation spokesperson as to the organization’s reasoning, namely that it “was often duplicating or competing with other institutions and synagogues. That is something our own criteria call for us not to do…”
It seems Federation has overlooked the very same economy of scale argument it used to explain its assimilation of CAJE in 2015. In an ideal world, encouraging local and individual efforts should allow them to grow, but in these troubled, uncertain times, this seems like uncharted territory and a risky, unnecessary and ill-timed financial gamble.
The published letters to the editor in the Light in response to the article were uniformly critical of the decision. Was there significant community support for Federation’s decision? Not all of Federation’s decisions will be, nor should be met with community approval, but this one seems to me to be poorly justified and especially ill timed.
I would hope Federation reconsider its decision or revisit the issue in the very near future to test their assumptions and check if their community partners have indeed increased their educational offerings to the Jewish community to fill the void created.
Stephen Bell, Westwood Lake