As Rabbi Scott Aaron entered the Agency for Jewish Learning Monday, he noticed the sign at the entrance bearing the inscription: “Jewish education means Jewish survival.”
“I thought, ‘yes, but. …’” he said. After a pause, he finished the thought: “Quality Jewish education is imperative to Jewish survival.”
That sums up how Aaron, the new community scholar of the AJL, is approaching his job. It’s not enough to have education programs; they must also have value and must meet the needs of the community they are targeting.
“For young people, this is a major question,” Aaron said. “What are their needs, and are their needs being met at a level of excellence? If we undershoot them, we lose them.”
Aaron, a Reform rabbi coming to Pittsburgh from Evanston, Ill., was selected from 70 applicants to succeed the outgoing community scholar, Rabbi Danny Schiff.
He is expected to start work by mid-August. His wife, Rabbi Donni Aaron, is taking a teaching position at Community Day School.
It’s understandable why Aaron chose young adult education to make his point about meeting the needs of the community. The 43-year-old rabbi/educator has become something of a specialist in that field.
He began his career working for Hillel chapters at New York University and the Ohio State University. He moved to California to become the education director of the Brandeis-Barden Institute in Simi Valley, during which time he became intimately involved with learning programs geared to young adults, newly married couples, singles and young families.
And as a Ph.D. candidate at Loyola University Chicago, he focused his studies on Jewish identity development and experiential Jewish education while simultaneously working as a senior educator at the University of Chicago Hillel.
But in an interview with The Chronicle Monday, Aaron stopped well short of saying he would redefine adult education to focus on young adults.
“I would say the role of community scholar has been well established by Danny Schiff; any changes in direction would come after enough time when I could learn the job,” he said. “That said, it (young adult education) certainly came up a lot in my interview process.”
Ed Frim, executive director of the AJL, identified leadership development — learning for Jewish leadership. As a focus of the job. Frim said Schiff had advanced leadership training as community scholar and he expected that to continue.
But he left up the possibility that the adult education program will change as Aaron settles into the job.
“As in any transition, it’s a time for opportunity,” Frim said.
Aaron recognized the challenge of providing quality adult education at a time when Jewish communities are struggling financially and retrenching in many areas. Jewish communities, including Pittsburgh, need to evaluate their existing programs to see “what works and what doesn’t,” he said, and to plan aggressively based upon those evaluations.
“We need to be more targeted in what we do,” he said.
The community scholar position is not something found in many communities, he said.
“As someone who’s dedicated to really providing quality education that really meets the needs of the adult community, that’s something I haven’t encountered anywhere else.”
A native of Columbus, Ohio, Aaron is a 1988 graduate of the University of Cincinnati. He earned a Juris Doctorate degree from the University of Toledo College of Law in 1992, and became ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York campus, in 1998.
He and wife Donni have three children.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)