In the early tenth century Rabbi Nathan the Babylonian visited the great Jewish academy of Sura, located west of the Euphrates River in ancient Babylonia, and reported the happenings there. Interestingly the academy was empty for most of the year and the majority of the students did not live in the vicinity. In fact it seems that many were in fact religious leaders in their own right in their cities of residence.
Twice a year however, during the summer month of Elul and the winter month of Adar, all the students would gather in the academy and study under the direct guidance of the head of the academy then known as the Gaon. These two months of in-house study were known as the Kallah months.
During these two months of intense on-site study the Gaon would announce which tractate was to be studied by the students during the intermittent months when they were away from the academy staying in their own towns and cities.
When they reconvened at the academy for the Kallah months they would study that tractate in more depth under the direction of the Gaon. The academy would also give stipends to its students to enable them to dedicate themselves to their studies.
Need for educational institutions
This is a very innovative way of motivating people to study. In an age where much study can be done independently through on-line distance learning, the need for permanent year round educational institutions is dwindling.
The model of the ancient Jewish academies is certainly worth reviewing in light of our superior accessibility to knowledge. It may be especially attractive to mature students who cannot dedicate an entire year to studying away from home.
In a Jewish context there is one organization that has begun to do just this. Last week I was invited to attend the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute’s first National Jewish Retreat, which took place in Copper Mountain resort here in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, founded in 1999 and underwritten by Gorge Rohr, has grown into the largest institute of adult learning of its kind, operating in over 200 cities around the world. Like the Academies of old, the same syllabus and texts are studied in each city where the Jewish Learning Institute operates.
They have now organized a yearly retreat for students of the Jewish Learning Institute centers around the world. Having studied the same texts over the year, students from diverse places around the globe come together to this retreat to discuss already familiar concepts in Jewish learning with each other and to hear lectures on the same topics from master teacher.
Although not as long as the Kallah month, the JLI’s four day retreat serves to motivate and inspire its students to continue learning with increased vigor and enthusiasm. Bonus attractions for the retreat attendees include exquisite kosher cuisine and the beautiful natural elegance of the Rocky Mountains, which presumably did not come as part of the Kallah month in tenth century Babylonia.
King Soloman said, there is nothing new under the sun - and it was heartening to observe new technology fuse with old ideas to create a fulfilling, inspiring and enlightening adult educational experience.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is executive director of Judaism in the Foothills and the author of numerous articles on a whole range of topics and issues, many of which can be found on his website