By Regan Treewater-Lipes
(AJNews) – It wasn’t long after arriving in Edmonton that Rabbi Steven Schwarzman and his congregation at Beth Shalom Synagogue were confronted with the challenge of adapting to the uncertainty of COVID, and the uncharted territory of virtual worship and community engagement. With two years of living-with-COVID now in the rear-view mirror of the global collective consciousness, there is an acquired ability to look back at all that has been achieved; at Beth Shalom there is much to be proud of.
For the past seven years, long-time Beth Shalom congregant Anna Linetsky has been at the helm of the Adult Education Committee.
“In 2015 the shul’s president called me, I was on vacation in Florida at the time, and he asked if I would take on the job. I told him I would think about it, but then he called me again and said he needed a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ – I said yes! For the rest of the time, until we returned to Edmonton, I was thinking always of what I would do in this position,” explained Linetsky in a recent phone interview, again from sunny Florida.
Education has always been at the forefront of Linetsky’s priorities. As a school principal in former Soviet Ukraine, Linetsky knows what it takes to inspire curiosity and implement strategies for pedagogical success. And after a long career at the University of Alberta Library, she knows just how to encourage and promote constructive learning experiences for adults as well.
“I started to approach different people from the shul and from my social circle: doctors, lawyers, people from the University. For the adult education programming I wanted diverse speakers to present on their areas of expertise from a Jewish perspective,” Linetsky elaborated.
“Our first speaker, this was in 2015, was Cantor David Mannes. He talked about variations in music and how tunes are changed. To that talk, twenty people came.”
Linetsky and her team of organizers have since hosted up to 120 people for their monthly lectures. “We have had speakers talk about Jewish art through the centuries, medical advancements coming from Israel, food – absolutely different topics all connected by being Jewish. I ask people to speak about what is closest to them.”
Since moving online, with a brief interlude during the summer months, the Adult Education Committee at Beth Shalom continues to organize monthly enriching lectures grounded in Jewish themes. Recently, they welcomed Professor Joseph Patrouch from the University of Alberta’s Department of History, Classics, and Religion for his second such lecture at the shul, titled: Monuments and Museums: How Austrians Are Dealing with the Past Today. On that particularly snowy Edmonton Sunday, nobody had to trudge out to their car to warm up the engine in order to attend. The virtual format allowed for attendees from across the Jewish community to join.
‘Zoom-fatigue’ has been a topic around many a dinner table of late, but the virtual crowd at Professor Patrouch’s lecture showed no indication of this virtual weariness. Those gathered were eager and excited for his presentation and came out in good numbers for the event. The talk allowed attendees to be momentarily transported to Vienna, with fantastic description and socially relevant examination. Important topics surrounding contemporary Jewish life in Austria were elaborated upon, providing insightful scholarly criticism and inspiration for further analysis and debate. With astonishing precision there was not a single cyber-hiccup, and the discussion following the lecture was both dynamic and thought provoking.
“I think it is very important to connect the worlds of academic research and teaching to broader audiences, and I spend significant effort trying to do so,” commented Professor Patrouch. In fact, the former Director of the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies was recently recognized by the Austrian Canadian Council and the Government of the Republic of Austria for his contributions to academia and engagement with the greater community.
“Now that I am back in my role as a full-time History professor, I’m pleased to be able to talk about my research and field with various audiences,” he added. Professor Patrouch even delivered a virtual presentation to a group of fifth grade students in Edmonton not too long ago and was also a guest-speaker at the 2021 Edmonton Jewish Film Festival.
“I have very much enjoyed my interactions and involvement with the Jewish community,” Professor Patrouch concluded by saying.
Expert guest-speakers are not the only adult enrichment offered at Beth Shalom. Rabbi Schwarzman teaches weekly scripture-based classes on Monday evenings. His twelve-week examination of Kohelet fused textual analysis with contemporary contextualization of Judaic influences and themes.
“All those who are interested are welcome,” he commented in a phone interview. “When we explored Kohelet the discussion obviously built and expanded on what was covered the previous week, but we tape our sessions, so if somebody missed an evening, they could catch up and then rejoin the next meeting.”
Rabbi Schwarzman encourages participation from those Zooming-in. “Sometimes I’ll ask one of our native Hebrew-speakers to do a reading of text and this can bring up additional layers of discussion where we can look at questions around language,” he explained. This is one way that Rabbi Schwarzman tries to keep adult education interactive. In some ways people may even be more willing to participate with our current Zoom format, he commented.
“People have the choice of switching on their cameras if they wish or keeping them off if they’re having a bad hair day. I do make my bar and bat mitzvah students turn on their cameras for their lessons though,” he added jovially. “But with Zoom, adult participants can type in their questions which provides a bit of anonymity for those who might be a bit more hesitant to speak up.” Rabbi Schwarzman said that he does still call on people from time-to-time to solicit their participation, “especially when I know that they have something vital to contribute.”
All this core Beth Shalom programming for adult enrichment is free of charge, and open to the greater Edmonton Jewish community. With the professional diversity of Linetsky’s guest-speakers, and the depth and nuance of Rabbi Schwarzman’s analysis of Judaic teachings, there is so much to be learned and discovered at Beth Shalom. For the full line-up of presentations and classes, please visit: edmontonbethshalom.org, and sign up for their newsletter – you will be happy you did!
Regan Treewater-Lipes is a Local Journalism Initiative Report