Lehrhaus marks 25 years with look to the past, future

Founded in 1974 as an educational alternative to university study, Berkeley's Lehrhaus Judaica has remained steadfast to the philosophy of its predecessor, the Freies Juedisches Lehrhaus (Free Jewish House of Learning) in Germany.

The credo of the German school was that the entire Jewish community should pursue lifelong learning, one of the best antidotes to assimilation.

While the original Lehrhaus perished at the hands of the Nazis, its legacy has lived on in Berkeley. The Bancroft Way institution marks its silver anniversary this year with a special lineup of classes that honor the past while looking to the future.

Celebrants, including students both past and present, are invited to attend a tribute dinner for founder and Director Fred Rosenbaum and others who have been integral to the school's success.

The fund-raising dinner is slated for Dec. 11. Details will be announced as the date draws nearer.

Rosenbaum early on had visions of an institution modeled after the German Lehrhaus, which he had studied as a graduate student in Germany. His Lehrhaus Judaica opened with an enrollment of 150 students in 12 classes. The course catalog was a single-sheet mimeograph. It didn't take too long for the curriculum to grow, with subjects that ranged from classical text study to Jewish influences on jazz and film.

The school's attendance has grown steadily with surges in the late 1980s and in the last three years, Rosenbaum said. Today it offers the most extensive course offerings in its history, attended by some 4,000 students a year at 30 sites throughout the Bay Area. It also offers independent study classes via the Internet.

And with a recent initiative to build similar schools across the country, Lehrhaus Judaica is primed to have the kind of national influence of its German forerunner.

The two institutions share more than a few traits. The original Lehrhaus was instrumental in a renewal of Jewish thought and learning among assimilated German Jews of the post-World War I era.

While Germany's Jews gained emancipation from the ghetto in the early 19th century, their struggles for social and political equality continued for several generations. By the 1920s, Jews had made significant inroads toward civil rights and were eager to become integral members of German society. As a result, many gave up traditional religious garb and, when they worshipped at all, observed a more liberal form of Judaism. Many, through several generations of mainstreaming, had become completely secular.

The late philosopher Franz Rosenzweig — patron tzaddik (righteous person) of the Berkeley Lehrhaus — was for many German Jews a guide to the renewal of Jewish thought and practice. Rosenzweig founded the German Lehrhaus in Frankfurt to encourage his highly cultured and secular brethren to reclaim their own scholarly tradition.

The Jewish school was known throughout Germany as a place of scholarly discourse and philosophical innovation, where the likes of Martin Buber and Erich Fromm held court.

Berkeley's Rosenbaum believes that Bay Area Jews have a lot in common with prewar German Jewish society. Both groups have been known for high levels of education and soaring assimilation.

Rosenbaum has added yet another parallel by adopting at Lehrhaus Judaica many of Rosenzweig's educational and spiritual philosophies.

The Berkeley educator believes that, for some Bay Area Jews, Jewish scholarship and academic quest may be their only connection to the community, and in other cases the means back to the fold.

As a result, Lehrhaus Judaica has a curriculum that represents all the streams of Judaism and subjects from religious to secular.

"The whole ethos of pluralism and tolerance of differences in opinion pervades the Bay Area; we have to look at Lehrhaus in that context," Rosenbaum said.

"We try to develop a range of programs so that Jewish studies becomes accessible within the lifestyle and demands of people's lives."

Those programs include a series for seniors, parent-and-child learners, Torah scholars, history buffs, feminists and aspiring Hebrew speakers.

In addition to the Berkeley location, Lehrhaus programs are offered in every geographic region in the Bay Area and even in private homes. This semester, the program expanded to San Jose with the assistance of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose.

As part of its special anniversary offerings, the school this semester features an arts and culture lecture series in which visiting scholars and journalists discuss topics in the fields of Israeli politics, Jewish art, folklore and history.

Two new field-study programs include a Holy Land archaeology class that culminates in a dig tour of Israel as well as a weeklong New York tour led by Rosenbaum.

The former New Yorker will guide participants through the historic and modern Jewish quarters and Ellis Island as well as the city's non-Jewish novelties.

As for the future, Rosenbaum said he wants to expand the school's Internet and other high-tech offerings to reach far-flung learners.

"I think Rosenzweig would be pleased" to see how his legacy has been carried on at Lehrhaus Judaica, the teacher said.

"He would see the similarities between his time and ours if he could come back now, and say, 'This is the way that you provide something genuinely Jewish to a community that is threatened by assimilation.'"

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.