The only thing Jeremy Morrison knows for sure as he prepares to take over as executive director of Lehrhaus Judaica is that his tenure won’t match that of his predecessor, Fred Rosenbaum, who founded the Bay Area adult Jewish studies institution in 1974 and has been at the helm ever since.
Morrison, who during his 15 years as a rabbi at Boston’s Temple Israel focused on Jewish education and on reaching out to Jews in their 20s and 30s, now will be directing a school that offers courses, lectures and tours on everything from Talmud studies to beginning Yiddish at 30 venues around the Bay Area.
In many ways, he is a kindred spirit to Rosenbaum. Both believe that learning is a two-way process in which teachers and students share insights. They also cherish change, a quality that has allowed Lehrhaus to evolve over the last four decades, just as the Bay Area Jewish community has evolved.
“I like how decentralized an organization it is,” Morrison said. “I’m impressed by its agility. In my interview process, there seemed to be not just lip service but a true commitment to the possibility of change — without knowing what that change will be.”
Morrison’s background is more religion oriented, though the Riverway Project he founded at Temple Israel was anything but traditional. Aimed at engaging unaffiliated young adult Jews, he brought the temple to them — holding services and discussion groups in homes and apartments. As a result of the project, hundreds of young Jews joined the Reform synagogue.
A native of the Boston suburb of Brookline, Morrison took a sabbatical last year to Thailand to finish his doctoral dissertation on the Bible and the ancient Near East. He moved his family — wife Molly Schmitt, son Ezekiel, 11, and daughter Poppy, who turns 8 next week — to Bangkok because he and Molly thought it would be a good experience for the kids.
Morrison, who turns 46 on May 14, decided it was time “to really explore Jewish leadership in a different context” and was attracted to the Lehrhaus position.
“I was interested in exploring how you create Jewish community beyond a single synagogue,” he said. “I’m attracted to what this institution does, and what it has the potential to do. I really view Judaism and in some ways all of life through the lens of teaching and learning.”
Rosenbaum, 69, who will continue to teach and lead Lehrhaus tours after stepping down as executive director in August, said the institution has refocused its curriculum as the local Jewish community has undergone changes — from the arrival of Soviet émigrés in the 1970s to the influx of Israelis in Silicon Valley more recently.
“Change is really in the DNA of Lehrhaus,” Rosenbaum said. “You have to adapt to new circumstances. The Bay Area is so dynamic and has so many possibilities and prospects. One of the things about Lehrhaus that I find so worthwhile is we’re very nimble and very flexible.”
Rosenbaum was 26 when he went from graduate school at UC Berkeley to creating Lehrhaus, which he based on the Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus founded in 1920 by Franz Rosenzweig in Frankfurt, Germany, and closed by the Nazis in 1938.
Rosenbaum discovered the original Lehrhaus school while studying the history of the Nazis as a Fulbright scholar in Germany. He found himself drawn to Rosenzweig’s focus on dialogue between teachers and students, and among students themselves.
Change is really in the DNA of Lehrhaus. You have to adapt to new circumstances.
“This is really crucial that Jewish learning not be something that’s passive, not be out of a sense of obligation or something rote, but a dynamic engagement in the material,” Rosenbaum said. “That’s what I’ve tried to do over the years, to get people engaged and involved intellectually and emotionally in that story. Dialogue is transformational. That is a pillar of the Lehrhaus way.”
During his 43-year tenure, Lehrhaus has served more than 100,000 students, offering courses, conferences, arts performances and study tours.
“I’m still going to be very involved,” Rosenbaum said in an interview from New York, where he has lived for the past two decades. “When I talk to other people about retirement, some of them say they want to write a book, others say I want to have time to travel. And others say I want to do a little teaching. I’m already doing all three of those things, so my transition to retirement will be easy.”
Morrison said it’s too early to predict what changes he’ll make at Lehrhaus. For his first six months, he plans to listen to people inside and outside the organization to get a clearer vision of which direction to take.
To both Morrison and Rosenbaum, one of the biggest challenges for Lehrhaus will be connecting with younger generations.
“Most of Lehrhaus’ people have aged with Fred. As with every Jewish institution in America, the question is: ‘How do we connect with a younger generation?’ ” Morrison said while house hunting in Berkeley.
“Younger generations learn in a new way, including plenty of online activity. I’m not sure if my generation wants to come out for the same lectures and trips.”
He also said Lehrhaus will have to continue adapting to the growing number of interfaith families in the Jewish community.
“Jewish families my age or younger increasingly are interfaith. Their notion of attachment to institutions is so different than my parents’. Their search for meaning is different,” Morrison said. “They’re asking questions about faith and community. It’s an opportunity for Lehrhaus, and it’s a necessary question to ask for the Bay Area Jewish community as a whole.”