New AJL effort to cross rivers for sake of Jewish learning

New AJL effort to cross rivers for sake of Jewish learning

There is an old saying: If you can’t bring Moshe to the mountain, bring the mountain to Moshe.
Or something like that.
In an effort to find ways to enhance the learning experiences of Pittsburgh’s Jewish adults, who are often reluctant to cross bridges or go through tunnels to attend a program, the Agency for Jewish Learning has launched “Across the Rivers,” a new initiative “bringing high quality educational experiences to a geographically stretched community,” according to AJL Community Scholar Rabbi Scott Aaron.
Here’s how it will work this year: the AJL will bring internationally recognized scholar Rabbi Neil Gillman to Pittsburgh in September, and again in May. Gillman will lead two study sessions — one in the fall and one in the spring — at four different locations: Squirrel Hill, South Hills, North Hills and the Eastern suburbs. Gillman will also lead two Web-accessible study sessions during the winter months.
“In general, the AJL realizes that only half of the Jewish community lives in the city,” said Ed Frim, AJL executive director. “If we want to include everyone we should include, we have to go where they are.”
All participants in Across the Rivers will be studying the same material with Gillman, regardless of where they live, or where they spend their winters, but from locations convenient to the learners.
“There are issues about adult education that are motivating this program,” Aaron said. “We did some research, and found that people wanted a more consistent presence of higher learning. But there were three main barriers: geography, the economy and the weather.”
The AJL decided to try the “experiment” of bringing in an “upper level scholar to teach in four geographic quadrants,” Aaron said. “The goal is to bring the scholar to you in a more geographically and fiscally effective way.
People with similar interests, living in the same neighborhood will be able to learn together, Aaron said, without having to travel across the city.
In the winter, two Web-based learning sessions will be offered in conjunction with the course, which is entitled “Four Beliefs that Jews Struggle to Believe: Torah, God, Suffering, and Life-After-Death.” The Web-seminars will be accessible from anywhere, so that snowbirds can continue their learning while away from Pittsburgh.
Teaching in several locations in a single city is a new venture for Gillman.
“I’ve been doing adult education for about 50 years,” Gillman said, “and this will be the first time I have been to one city and went around to different locations in the same city. Because people in Pittsburgh don’t go to other communities for programs, I will go to them. If we want them to study, we have to go to them.”
The program will be offered at the Squirrel Hill and South Hills Jewish Community Centers, the Hampton Community Center in the North Hills, and Temple David in Monroeville.
The course will be “a sort of summary” of a book authored by Gillman, focusing on “the four major issues of Jewish theology,” Gillman said.
While teaching via the Web is not Gillman’s preferred format, he recognizes its advantages.
“The good thing is I get many more students than I would otherwise,” he said. “It’s not my favorite medium, but you have to do it to get people.”
“We’re trying to be innovative,” Aaron said. “We’re hopeful we will be providing a stimulating adult educational experience with a world renown theologian for a more extensive and intimate process.”
And, bringing in one scholar to teach throughout the community is cost-effective, he added.
“If every community has to pay separately to bring scholars in, they are not acting prudently financially,” Aaron said.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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