Melton's partnership with the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center (ERJCC) in Houston is a powerful combination, providing an engaging curriculum taught by outstanding faculty in a welcoming community. At a time when polarization poses significant challenges to the Jewish world, the ERJCC is a driving force for Jewish connectedness.
Rabbi Barry Gelman, Director, Bobbi and Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning at the ERJCC, leads a pluralistic community that strives to learn and grow together. He was an impactful local rabbi for the United Orthodox Synagogues in Houston for 18 years before taking up his current role and has a 15-year history of teaching Melton courses. With his extensive experience in outreach and education, Rabbi Gelman sees learning as a core tenet of Judaism and recognizes that communal studies have the potential to unify entire communities.
"Melton has a great reputation for creating quality curriculum both in terms of the content, the actual texts themselves, and what we share together as learners," Rabbi Gelman said. "It encourages people from different backgrounds, different approaches, and different beliefs to come together, which makes for a much more robust learning experience."
The Houston Jewish community embraces the value of diversity wholeheartedly. Since last November, learners from Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform backgrounds have been engaging in thoughtful discussions through Melton's Round Table Learning Initiative, a new program developed to address the growing divide between Jews of diverse backgrounds and beliefs. Every week, community members convene to learn both the course materials from varying perspectives and about one another.
Houston is the first Melton partner community to roll out this program. As an advocate for bringing the Round Table Learning Initiative to the ERJCC, Rabbi Gelman placed his trust in the merits of the course materials and the concept of roundtable learning. To prepare for a meaningful course with a diverse cohort, he spread the word to friends and colleagues: learners wanted, all backgrounds welcome.
"Given that this course was constructed specifically with the exchange of ideas in mind, I reached out to rabbis strung across the ideological spectrum for help with recruitment," he explained. "Thankfully, they took me up on it, and we even have two rabbis from different denominations teaching alongside me."
The topic of the course is medical ethics, a theme that can invoke strong reactions. Much to Rabbi Gelman's surprise, however, learners have found far more points of agreement than was anticipated.
"There's been a lot of meaningful discussion around the table," Rabbi Gelman said. "We're noticing that people from different backgrounds can come together to share their outlooks and that it's not only about the healthy debate, but it's also about celebrating the closeness of the students."
As the ERJCC continues teaching and evaluating the impact of this course on the Houston Jewish community, Rabbi Gelman sees the Round Table Learning Initiative as a steppingstone for future engagements across denominational lines. With several other Melton courses already being taught or planned for the future, including courses from Melton's Living Wisdom series, the ERJCC has exciting plans for learners.
"Out of this initiative, I hope we can create an interdenominational think tank or advisory board which would meet to discuss the interdenominational health of the city and share with community leaders, rabbis, agency leaders," Rabbi Gelman said. "I've always seen through the years how relationships are built and strengthened through shared courses, and I hope we can take advantage of that to foster a community that checks in and supports one another above all else."
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