Publisher: Cleveland Jewish News
Twenty-four years ago, Cleveland was experiencing the â€śinfancy of Jewish outreach,â€ť according to Rabbi Ephraim Nisenbaum, director of the Jewish Learning Center, based in University Heights. â€śNot really much was offered educationally to people who didnâ€™t have much of a background in Jewish education,â€ť he said.
â€śThere was definitely interest in it,â€ť he said. â€śAfter studying at Yeshiva in Chicago and coming back to Cleveland from Israel, I wanted to get started. I really looked forward to an opportunity to teach adults that had an interest.â€ť
Nisenbaum, a graduate of Hebrew Academy of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights and Telshe Yeshiva in Wickliffe, had a good role model: his father, Jerold, a businessman, now retired, who enjoyed sharing his knowledge of Judaism. â€śI had the experience of people coming to my parentsâ€™ house for Shabbos.
â€śWhen I first came back to Cleveland, my goal wasnâ€™t to be a congregational rabbi,â€ť Nisenbaum said. In 1988, he was appointed rabbi of the former Ohr Chadash Synagogue, where he co-founded the JLC with Rabbi Aryeh Burnham, who has since made aliyah to Israel. â€śI put an ad in the Cleveland Jewish News, and the word spread,â€ť he said about JLCâ€™s launching.
Nisenbaum said he wanted to give people an opportunity to connect with Judaism no matter what their level of religious education or observance was. â€śI had 16 years of yeshiva education and I really wanted to share it. That was my overriding goal.â€ť
People came, and the more they studied, the more involved they became, said Nisenbaum, who serves as JLC director. â€śIt was the most heartwarming, satisfying thing for people to take an interest in Torah and apply it to their own lives. Our focus has been on trying to be open to individuals and small groups rather than doing something impersonal.
â€śWeâ€™ve become a surrogate rabbi, parents and counselor for many people,â€ť said Nisenbaum, who has authored books, including â€śPower Linesâ€ť and â€ś49 Steps to Greatness.â€ť
As it approaches its silver anniversary, JLC has about 200 people attending services and classes on a regular basis, said associate director Rabbi Moshe Stoll, who has been with JLC for 22 years.
Focus on outreach
â€śWe call this outreach, where we offer classes for Jews with limited backgrounds in Jewish education,â€ť said Stoll, who came to Cleveland and JLC in 1990. â€śSome have become observant,â€ť he said, adding many have become much more connected to the religion.
Stoll, who has been involved in outreach since 1979, is originally from Toronto, where he studied and taught at Ner Israel Rabbinical College. â€śWhile I was studying at the yeshiva in Toronto, I was doing outreach part time.
â€śWe offer more than classes,â€ť Stoll said about JLC. â€śA number of people we study with have become some of my closest friends.â€ť
JLC offers classes and other programs for adult men and women, including college students throughout the week. Some are provided as a series or as special events. Classes are held daytime or evening at JLCâ€™s Waxman Torah Center in University Heights and at businesses in Beachwood, Independence, downtown Cleveland and other locations. Rabbis also meet in peopleâ€™s offices and homes to study one-on-one. Topics range from â€śAll Things Jewishâ€ť to â€śTalmud 101â€“Learn How to Learn Gemaraâ€ť and Jewish ethics.
JLC also has a minyan each morning and evening throughout the week, with assistance available for the novice; offers hospitality on Shabbat and other holidays; and hosts larger events for the community.
As they prepare for their annual fundraiser, Nisenbaum and Stoll reflected on JLCâ€™s success in helping hundreds connect to Judaism. JLCâ€™s 24th anniversary celebration and deluxe dessert reception will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4, at Beechmont County Club, 29600 Chagrin Blvd. in Orange. Cost is $36. Call JLC at 216-691-3837 for reservations.
Three people will receive Guardian of the Torah Awards for longtime involvement at JLC: Julie and Bryan Rubenstein of Beachwood, and Jerry Aizen of Solon.
Waxman Torah Center
Former Guardian of the Torah Award winners include Melvin and Armond Waxman, CEOs of Waxman Industries, Inc., who provided the lead gift for the JLC to purchase and renovate a one-story, 5,000-square-foot, former office building.
The Waxman Torah Center, at 2195 S. Green Road in University Heights, opened May 28, 2007, after JLC spent 19 years without a permanent home. Over the years, JLC had rented space in locations, including an office building in South Euclid and Yavne High School in Beachwood.
For JLC, the permanent home was a dream come true. With its own building and daily services, JLC has developed a sense of community.
However, the rabbis are still perfectly willing to travel for a class or large event, or to study with an individual.
Who are the students?
Most of the people who study at JLC belong to area synagogues, from Reform to Conservative and Orthodox, Nisenbaum and Stoll said, adding that some are not affiliated. â€śThatâ€™s not competition to us. Our job is to educate.â€ť
For example, Aizen and Stoll have been studying together over the last 15 years. â€śHe became very involved in the Solon Chabad. I got him excited about Judaism and heâ€™s helping out the Jewish community,â€ť Stoll said.
â€śItâ€™s been a strong relationship of learning and strengthened my spirituality and Judaism,â€ť said Aizen, who started at JLC after a friend encouraged him to attend a class with Rabbi Stoll. While he â€śshowed up at the High Holy Days out of respect to my parents,â€ť he was basically nonobservant, Aizen said.
Today, Aizen, who is CEO and founder of A New Image Heating and Cooling in Warrensville Heights, and his wife, Cindy, have a kosher home. They walk to Shabbat services at the Chabad Jewish Center of Solon, host guests for Shabbat and have shared their succah with many families in the community.
The Aizens, together with their children Melissa, 25, Joshua, 23, and Samantha, 18, have found the experience enriching. â€śIâ€™ve enjoyed my relationship with the two rabbis over the years,â€ť Jerry Aizen said. â€śTheyâ€™ve become part of the family.â€ť Aizen recalled how the rabbis visited them when his father was in the hospital and after he died.
Another longtime JLC students is Robert Reitman of Gates Mills, who chaired the Jewish Federation of Clevelandâ€™s annual campaign for two years and co-chaired the administrative committee.
â€śMy relationship with JLC started on my 60th birthday,â€ť Reitman said. â€śThat was 19 years ago. I decided I would give myself study activities.â€ť His passion to learn more about Judaism, he said, stemmed from a desire â€śto have a greater understanding of who we areâ€ť and the basic tenets of the religion.
â€śRabbi Stoll comes by every week,â€ť said Reitman, a member of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood. â€śHe comes to my office. I have found it a very satisfying experience. It has added a dimension to my understanding of Judaism and living a Jewish life, albeit not a totally observant one. It has given me confidence in some of the things in which I believe.â€ť