Organizations of all sizes have seen an increase in the number of adult learners in their online programs during this year. Adults recognize that Jewish learning can offer them spiritual nourishment, intellectual stimulation, and social connection during this time of isolation and restriction. The virtual classroom allows these devoted learners to invite friends and family from across the world to join them. Virtual classrooms also allow learners to take classes with gifted educators from near and far—it makes every scholar "in residence."
The ability to learn from home has largely been freeing for adults. They don't have to contend with traffic, and they can dress comfortably, sip a cup of coffee, or slowly eat their dinner while learning. If they are muted, it doesn't really matter if spouses, pets, or children amble into the room during a session. In fact, learners usually respond warmly when they get a glimpse into their fellow learners' lives. Classes feel more integrated into life because we feel (and are) at home, and we go from learning to our next daily activity in a matter of seconds.
The relaxed aspect of a home setting also effortlessly accomplishes something that adult educators usually work hard at—creating an atmosphere in which people feel comfortable sharing. Classes truly become spaces to explore, reach out, and be heard. Even when learners are muted, the chat box offers a new way to share, ask questions and even offer support. The element of interaction is more important than ever these days.
While we know that some adults look forward to learning together in the same physical space again, we do not yet know how many adults will gravitate back to local in-person learning, and to what extent. The fact that learners now have online access to master lecturers, international experts, and educational experiences with high production value, can feel threatening to smaller programs of community-based learning. But I am not worried — there will absolutely be a desire to return to face-to-face interaction. And there can be a fusion of the two: Zoom providing a much more affordable way to host a guest scholar, for example, used as a meaningful launch for smaller, in-person group discussions.
It seems to me that the most beneficial way to think of adult learning post-pandemic is using the "yes and" philosophy we have assimilated from the world of improv. Yes, adults do want to hear a talk by a leading scholar from the comfort of their homes and they want to study with their rabbi with whom they have an important personal relationship. Yes, it is thrilling to learn alongside 800 people from around the world and we feel more connected in our communities when we deeply get to know the dozen people with whom we discuss the weekly Torah portion.
Adult Jewish learning may turn out to be one of the strongest silver linings of the pandemic, re-invigorating a multiplicity of ways for us to share our engagement, curiosity, and discovery, and build together a stronger Jewish future.
This article orginally appeared in ejewishphilanthropy.com, as part of an update from the The Jewish Education Project.