A 37°North Shabbat dinner in Berkeley this past summer (Photo/Courtesy Hamaqom)
A 37°North Shabbat dinner in Berkeley this past summer (Photo/Courtesy Hamaqom)

Lehrhaus Judaica sheds its name, expands mission

The organization formerly known as Lehrhaus Judaica has a new name: Hamaqom | The Place.

The Berkeley-based Jewish educational institution, which has offered adult classes to the public since 1974, is undergoing its first major overhaul in 45 years.

The new name — pronounced “ha-mah-comb,” Hebrew for “the place” —  reflects a shifting focus, says Rabbi Jeremy Morrison, who took the helm as executive director two years ago.

“The term emerged after the destruction of the Second Temple to refer to God,” he said. In the absence of a physical temple, the term suggests that “sacred space is formed by individuals gathering together.”

While Lehrhaus will continue its signature lecture series, travel programs and Jewish text circles, there will be an increased emphasis on creating community among participants that will, ideally, extend beyond the classroom.

“The focus will be on building community” rather than providing content or programs, Morrison said. “I want to build a network of microcommunities throughout the Bay Area. That’s why we acquired Kevah last year,” he said, referring to the 20 or so small-group study circles that became part of Lehrhaus in July 2018.

Renaming an organization to reflect an operational change or more accurately describe a mission is something other local Jewish institutions have done in past years. In 2012, the Bureau of Jewish Education became Jewish LearningWorks, and in 2015, Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay became Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay. And in 2003, the Jewish Bulletin became J., the Jewish News Weekly, and today it is known as J. The Jewish News of Northern California.

The focus will be on building community.

Morrison is only the second executive director of Lehrhaus, replacing founding director Fred Rosenbaum, who created the institution fresh out of grad school at UC Berkeley. Rosenbaum based it on the Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus, which was founded in 1920 by Franz Rosenzweig in Frankfurt, Germany, and closed by the Nazis in 1938.

The central principle of both the German and Berkeley Lehrhaus models is that learning happens through dialogue between students and teachers, and among students themselves. It must be active, not passive, demanding “dynamic engagement with the material,” Rosenbaum told J. in a 2017 interview.

The changing focus and the new name are in keeping with that original intent, said Morrison. Hamaqom looks to bridge gaps among younger Jews and those who don’t fit the traditional mainstream model,, “helping people to navigate Jewish opportunities in the Bay Area, or create their own communities.”

This spring, as part of the overhaul, Lehrhaus launched 37° North, an initiative more consciously aligned with its new focus (the name is the latitude/longitude of the Bay Area). Aimed mainly at interfaith couples and young adult Jews with little Jewish background, the group meets monthly for Shabbat dinners in members’ homes, where participants enjoy Jewish ritual and learning along with the food. Most of the 20 to 30 regulars are graduates of Morrison’s introductory Judaism course.

There is no set curriculum, said Lehrhaus associate director Jason Harris, who runs the gatherings with Morrison. Instead, at the end, they ask the participants what they’d like to focus on next.

“We keep asking them, is this what you want to learn?” Harris said.

For now the 37° North gatherings are being held in the East Bay. That’s because of findings in the 2018 Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities, said Morrison. The Jewish Community Federation-sponsored demographic study found that “Jews are leaving San Francisco for the East and South Bay,” he said.

So why the “q” in “hamaqom”? It’s for “questioning,” Morrison reports. And because, he notes, it’s the “correct transliteration” for the Hebrew letter “kuf.”

Just in case you wondered.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.