Gertrude Stein and her friends called them "salons": periodic gatherings for the purpose of intellectual and social discourse.
Now American Jews are adapting that concept. National programs like the Wexner Fellowship and the Center for Learning and Leadership are organizing informal gatherings in homes across the country. Here in the Bay Area, one locally grown salon program is called "Lessons for Leaders."
Julian Wolf is president of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay. But at "Lessons," he's just another student.
Wolf says studying how Jewish communities functioned during the Middle Ages, for example, has given him perspective on his own role.
"Everybody had a vote, everything was based on a majority. But everybody paid a tithe to have a vote. Now, not everybody participates that wants to have a say. It's not as simple. You just have to understand you won't always please everyone," Wolf explains.
Through the program, Jewish leaders like Wolf, and those aspiring to leadership, study Jewish history, texts, philosophy, ethics, contemporary issues and politics. The purpose is to discover "what lessons can be drawn for someone who is a leader today," says Fred Rosenbaum, director of Lehrhaus Judaica, which is running the newly expanded program.
Participants pay $125 for about six monthly sessions. "Lessons" is subsidized by the S.F-based and East Bay Jewish federations and the Koret Foundation of San Francisco.
With new grant money, "Lessons" will be teaching six groups totaling 180 students this year — up from last year's 120. Meeting in private homes throughout the Bay Area, the groups will discuss Jewish topics after listening to lectures delivered by local scholars and spiritual leaders.
"Leaders will be able to make more informed decisions," Rosenbaum says. "This is especially important because our community is at a crossroads now. Leaders are making some of the most difficult and momentous choices they've had to make in a half a century."
One topic Rosenbaum always covers in his own lectures to the groups is the role of the American Jewish community during the Holocaust. He says there's no right way to judge history, but there's no reason not to look back and "try to draw out lessons." Many of the students serve on Jewish community agency boards and are making crucial decisions about Jews overseas.
Rosenbaum says he was inspired to create the local learning league because of the abundance of Jewish intellectuals in the area. Teachers include Rabbi Lavey Derby of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Professors Arnold Eisen from Stanford and David Biale from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and Rabbi Amy Eilberg, former director of Kol Haneshama Jewish Hospice of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.
This year also marks the formation of the first group designed specifically for leaders or potential leaders under 40.
For some students, lessons on Jewish ethics have implications that reach beyond their duties serving on boards or working as Jewish professionals.
Susan Mall, co-chair of the program when it began and active Jewish community leader for the past 20 years, says she keeps attending the monthly meetings because she always learns something she can use in her daily life.
For her, the meetings aren't primarily a social function or even a leadership how-to.
"The conversations have made me think about things in a different way, in a Jewish way, like giving money to beggars on the street. We talked about the Jewish response to poverty, and it changed the way I look at street people. I used to walk on by.
"Now, I don't," Mall explains.