Lehrhaus turns 30

How far has Lehrhaus Judaica come in 30 years? Fred Rosenbaum — founding director of the Bay Area’s Jewish studies adult school — crunches the numbers.

“Our first catalog was a one-page mimeograph sheet,” he recalls. “Before opening day, we had one response.”

Whoever that solitary soul was, he or she sure got the ball rolling. Today, Lehrhaus Judaica teaches more than 4,000 students annually and offers courses at satellite campuses all over the Bay Area. And that once one-page catalog is now 75 pages long.

These are achievements worth celebrating, which is why Rosenbaum and his colleagues are throwing themselves a 30th anniversary bash and fund-raiser, to be held at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Monday, Feb. 14.

The anniversary night honoree is Barbara Rosenberg, a Lehrhaus board member and one of the school’s staunchest supporters.

“Barbara led to some of the most creative programs we ever offered,” says Jehon Grist, Lehrhaus’ executive director. “[Barbara and Dick Rosenberg] were instrumental in providing the financial support necessary for the renovation of the new Reutlinger Center [Lehrhaus’ Berkeley headquarters].”

With courses in Jewish history, current events, Hebrew and Yiddish language, Bible and other key texts, all taught by topnotch local and visiting scholars, Lehrhaus provides one-stop shopping for the region’s intellectually curious.

In addition to the meat-and-potatoes courses, Lehrhaus has also offered many innovative programs over the years, from the annual Bible-by-the-Bay one-day learning marathon to the “Heritage” series taught with a data-rich CD-ROM package. Lehrhaus also sponsors study trips to Europe, Israel and other Jewish centers.

Even with its modest start, Rosenbaum knew he was on to something with the Lehrhaus concept: It had proven successful in Frankfurt, Germany, decades earlier with the establishment of the first Lehrhaus.

“I had a model for the whole 30 years,” says Rosenbaum. “The philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig. In 1920, Rosenzweig established the first Lehrhaus, which means “house of learning” in German. Martin Buber, Gershom Sholom and Abraham Joshua Heschel taught there. There was a class in Jewish art taught by a young Russian immigrant named Marc Chagall.”

The educational principles of Rosenzweig were nondenominational and put the student — not the instructor — at the center of the action. These are principles Rosenbaum established from the beginning. “We emphasize dialogue among the students themselves,” he says.

Rosenzweig died in 1929. The Nazis closed the Lehrhaus in the late 1930s. But its founder’s commitment to adult Jewish education could not be snuffed out, inspiring generations to come.

With a master’s degree in Jewish studies and a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany, the then-26-year-old Rosenbaum took a detour from traditional academia when he came up with the idea for a new Lehrhaus. “Perhaps the greatest failing of American Jews was the sorry state of Jewish education,” he says. “Most came from woefully inadequate Sunday school education. I wanted to provide a new forum.”

As his idea gathered steam, he brought into the fold a couple of key players.

“Two people had the vision to sustain this,” says Rosenbaum. “Hillel director Rabbi Steven Robbins and Seymour Fromer, my mentor, the head of the Magnes Museum.” Rosenbaum credits those men with co-founding Lehrhaus Judaica with him.

Both Grist and Rosenbaum have their own personal highlights from their tenures at Lehrhaus. For Grist, a special moment came in the early 1990s, during the days of the first intifada and the Madrid conference.

“We sponsored a lecture series,” he says. “Not only did we have a full range of Israeli representatives, but we also had the ambassador from Egypt. That was controversial, but we got a strong response.”

For Rosenbaum, one of the highpoints took place in 1987, when Lehrhaus mounted a tribute to Rosenzweig.

“A number of people showed up,” he recalls, “including a few older German Jews who had studied at the original Lehrhaus. Rosenzweig’s doctor, Erich Goldner, lived in the Bay Area. He was about 90, but he came and gave a terrific speech. The next day, I called him to thank him. His daughter told me he had peacefully passed away that day. He had wanted to live long enough to make it to the event.”

As reverent as they are of the past, the Lehrhaus leadership is more focused on the future, especially with their emphasis on the digital classroom. “This is the new world of 21st century education,” says Grist. “We’re looking for a variety of ways to bring WiFi and digitally projected materials into classroom, plus the virtual bibliography that the Web provides.”

Yet no matter how technologically advanced Lehrhaus may become, for Rosenbaum nothing beats the timeless magic of learning.

“I’m proudest when I see someone who starts out as a student and ends up a teacher,” he says. “That’s happened several times. Franz Rosenzweig wrote that only when that happens do you have a real Lehrhaus. He said the teacher and the student should be able to exchange places.”

Lehrhaus Judaica’s 30th anniversary fund-raising dinner is at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 14, at the JCCSF, 3200 California St. $75 to $150. Information: Rachelle Padgett, (510) 845-6420 ext. 12.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.