Amkraut, Brian

Brian Amkraut

Following the lead of many universities and schools that have transferred to a remote format during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Laura and Alvin Siegal Lifelong Learning Program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland is expanding its Hebrew and secular continuing-education courses in scope and nature for the winter semester.

The Siegal Lifelong Learning Program is unique because it offers classes primarily intended to continue adults’ educations across studies past the college level, said Brian Amkraut, executive director of the program.

Amkraut said the program was initially called the Laura and Alvin Siegal College of Jewish Studies until it was incorporated into CWRU in 2012. The Siegals were a prominent local Jewish family who attended Oheb Zedek Cedar Sinai Synagogue in Lyndhurst.

“We’ve had very few other university-based community and continuing-education programs that really shifted to bring their entire body of educational activity to remote access,” said Amkraut, who lives in Beachwood and is a member of Congregation Shaarey Tikvah in Beachwood. “We’re the only ones, as far as I’ve seen, to change the program on the fly to incorporate instructors from around the country and, in some respects, around the world.”

For example, Amkraut points to a series of lectures that recently wrapped up called “The Origin Science Scholar Program,” in which the Institute for the Science of Origins at CWRU called upon national experts like Jurgen Bosch from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to discuss pertinent topics like innovations in virus testing technologies.

Here, Amkraut said the shift to remote learning benefited students, who got to hear virtual lectures from pre-eminent experts who would have been too expensive to bring to Cleveland otherwise. It will continue to benefit students as the program prepares to offer more classes in January, February and March than in any three-month period before, he said.

“We’re going to be launching a 24-lecture series covering the Hebrew bible,” he said, referring to the “Whole in One” lecture series. “The one we’re doing this spring is new, we’re doing it with a group called 929 English. We’re working with them to have a lecture series that uses international expert faculty to give one-off lectures on the Hebrew bible.”

Each course or session is priced on an individual basis, with lower rates for those who opt to pay a yearly membership fee of $40. Individual modules in the “Whole in One” series, which runs through June 2021, costs $83 for program members and $102 for nonmembers. Students can also attend individual lectures or seminars at lower rates, usually $5 for members and $10 for nonmembers.

While some courses are tied to Jewish texts and culture, Amkraut said the majority of the 45 different remote courses the Lifelong Learning Program is offering next semester are nonreligious in nature, including the popular “Senior Scholars” series that focuses on older adults.

“One of the important things to remember is there was a very significant social component of our in-person activity,” Amkraut said. “We’re able to continue in that format, as many of our adult learners are stuck at home, they can still see their friends, the people they’ve been studying with for years. So, as much as possible, we try to encourage retaining that social component.”

He said the program’s Jewish courses also play an important and necessary role in the Jewish community, as many Jewish learners seek to learn about their faith outside of traditional means.

“What we’ve always felt is, in addition to the enormous work and good work that goes on in the synagogue world, there is always a segment of the Jewish population who is interested in getting their education outside of the synagogue,” Amkraut said. “And that’s the niche that we always felt that we can fill.”

Collin Cunningham is a freelance writer from Cleveland.

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