- - Thursday, April 11, 2013


A paradox of modern life, illustrated by books such as Robert D. Putnam’s landmark work “Bowling Alone,” is that the definitions of community are fluid. Surveys suggest that people don’t want to “belong” to a congregation, per se, but they value spirituality.

On Sunday, a regional group will try to reach Jews in and around Washington, D.C., to help forge a greater sense of community and throw some education into the process.

The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning, a self-described “team of innovators with a new vision for Jewish education,” will host Routes: A Day of Jewish Learning, at American University from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. During those seven hours, organizers say, 60 seminars will allow participants to “engage with some of the country’s most inspiring Jewish minds.”

The speakers roster is eclectic: Joel Chasnoff, a stand-up comic from Chicago who was drafted into the Israeli army; writer Erica Brown, who plans to discuss “A Spiritual Bucket List”; filmmaker Daniel Cohen on his project “Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope”; chef Sheilah Kaufman, speaking about “The History of the Jews and Chocolate”; and counterterrorism analyst Matthew Levitt are among the presenters. A full list can be found at routeslearning.org.

Now in its fourth year, “Routes was begun to give people an opportunity to spend an extended time immersed in discussing, thinking about and studying topics related to a broad understanding of Jewish learning,” said James Hyman, the partnership’s CEO.

“People attend Routes to laugh, cry, explore, learn and come together as one community,” he added.

A total of 66 people are presenting at the event, but only 12 are rabbis. Why?

“While there are 12 of the 66 presenters who are rabbis, some of them are leading sessions on Jewish texts while others are addressing spiritual issues and others are addressing cultural issues,” Mr. Hyman said. “Likewise, some of the sessions led by nonclergy are also text study, spirituality, and cultural or political. The program is designed to give voice to the many ways Jews express their Judaism and to learn and experience them.”

About half of the participants are older than 50, and the other half, Mr. Hyman said, are distributed between college students and those in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

“For many attendees, this full day of learning is an exciting experience that is repeated year after year through Routes,” Mr. Hyman said. “Some are synagogue members and some were engaged in Jewish adult learning before attending Routes and others are not. What Routes does is create an environment where participants from many different backgrounds can come together as one learning community that transcends all of their differences and instead embraces them.”

The idea of a one-day format, versus one that stretches over a few days, also might be appealing. In a busy world and few cities are busier than Washington setting aside a single day for such an event might be more manageable than carving out a large block of time.

Mr. Hyman said “the sheer number of diverse choices for sessions in one place on one day” was perhaps the top reason for attending the event, and the roster shows he’s probably right. Rabbi Darby Leigh, for example, will ask, “Do Our Internet Habits Connect Us to Other People and Create Community, or Do They Isolate Us and Make Us Lonely?” It is a timely question in an age when many of us are walking around glued, it seems, to our smartphones.

Rabbi Aaron Miller has high hopes for the event. “I can see how Jewish learning inspires Jewish living,” said Mr. Miller, whose Washington Hebrew Congregation has hundreds participating in weekly studies.

Mr. Miller added, “The best outcome of Jewish education is to inspire a thirst for more, and I hope that this day of learning will lead participants to continue learning throughout the year.”

⦁ Mark A. Kellner can be reached at [email protected]

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