The Characteristics and Practices of Long-term Adult Jewish Learners: New Perspectives on the Dynamics of an Adult Classroom


Source: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America


Within the larger domain of adult Jewish learners there is a smaller cohort that continues to study regularly over the course of many years. They have stayed motivated to learn until a point where the study itself becomes part of their lives and regular practice. As a result of their experience these long-term learners have a tremendous amount to say about what makes the learning important to them, how it took hold, and how it affects their lives.

This dissertation is a qualitative study of these learners, drawing from their reflections to portray their day-to-day experiences in the classroom. I interviewed thirteen students who qualify after at least five years of weekly study. These interviews were coded and themes were extracted and studied in light of current thinking on adult development and learning. Then, by applying a grounded theory approach I was able to determine different theoretical models which explain more about their experiences. These theories revealed themselves in the process of data analysis. Recommendations for teachers in the field of adult Jewish learning are suggested by the findings.

This analysis showed that long-term learners may not change their religious observance in any way, but that the combination of challenging work which might involve the use of Hebrew and the decoding and interpreting of texts leads to powerful and personal meaning-making in addition to a collective experience of dialogue and group interpretation. The momentum and safety of the environment released feelings of optimal experience (“flow”) and resulted in the learners developing a new appetite for deep and engaging dialogue that they took outside of the classroom and back into their lives in the forms of conversation with family and friends. This optimal flow also gave them a sensation of time stopping and the classroom as some sort of refuge from their otherwise busy lives. These were the factors which kept them coming over the course of many years and which turned them into not just engaged but more knowledgeable Jews. Some of the teacher’s practices were outlined briefly as a guide for further research and to support the professional development of other teachers in the field.

Updated: Nov. 09, 2016