SJCC's Melton School shows how smaller cities can do big things

Cutline: SJCC Adult Education and Cultural Program Manager, Sue Potechin was  in Louisville, Kentucky last month for a Melton International Directors Conference where the SJCC's Ottawa Melton School was recognized with The Florence Melton Award for Outstanding Achievement and Exemplary Practice. Sue is pictured here with Rabbi Rachel Bovitz, Executive Director of Melton and Rabbi Dr. Morey Schwartz, Executive Director of Melton International.
SJCC's Melton School wins prestigious award
Never stop learning. This is the motto of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning and one proudly supported by the Soloway JCC, which could also adopt the motto that you are never too small to accomplish great things. 
The SJCC was recently recognized with a prestigious award for its Melton School: The Florence Melton Award for Outstanding Achievement and Exemplary Practice. This incredible acknowledgement at first took the staff involved by surprise -- not because they didn’t know their school was exceptional, but simply because the competition within the Melton network of schools is so vast.

"I was shocked,” says Sue Potechin, assistant director of the Melton school in Ottawa and the SJCC’s Adult Education & Cultural Programs manager, of her reaction when the award was announced at the Melton International Directors Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, last month.   

Similarly, Rabbi Steven Garten, the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel who has been the Director of Ottawa’s Melton School since 2015, says he was “flabbergasted” when he first got the call. 

“We are one of the smallest cities in the whole firmament of Melton!” laughs the Rabbi trying to put in context the massive size difference between our Jewish community and those of cities like Chicago and New York. “Some of these communities run courses with hundreds of people each term... So, it is a pretty nice recognition of what a small city can do." 

In this sense, explains Rabbi Garten, the award also celebrates “the city and the SJCC and all those who have studied with and donated to Melton.” 

“We’re the longest-standing Canadian school and we always have classes running," said Potechin who explains that the Melton School, which is part of the Hebrew University, offers first-class, university-level studies for people who are serious about learning. The SJCC’s school is one of 50 Melton communities throughout Canada, the United States, Australia and South Africa, with Melton being the largest pluralistic adult Jewish education network in the world.  

Of course, the award is also a wonderful recognition of the hard work, dedication and expertise of all its faculty members, who include area rabbis and university professors; and of its staff, including former long-time SJCC assistant executive director Maxine Miska and former Adult Cultural Programs manager Roslyn Wollock who worked hard and long hours at the SJCC to make sure Melton succeeded. 

For Rabbi Garten, working with the Melton School is a perfect fit; teaching is his passion and the Melton philosophy of learning compliments his style. 

“Teaching has always been very important to me and because I believe the best way of learning is to discover for yourself, there is a synergy between the Melton vision and my style.” 

“He’s an excellent teacher," Potechin says of Rabbi Garten. “Melton’s philosophy is really to engage students and encourage participation, no matter what their background. Rabbi Garten is very successful doing that because he is so knowledgeable.”   

Rabbi Garten explains that in the Melton school learning philosophy, every student has a text, either ancient or modern, regarding a theme. Students are invited along with the instructor to read the text and see what questions the text answers about the primary text that was chosen.  For instance, students can discuss how slavery evolved in the world by reading portions of Genesis, rabbinical and medieval texts to modern treatises and then offer their own opinions.  

“They become discoverers of their own ... That kind of participation makes people feel the difference between adult learning and learning as children.” 

Another success of Ottawa’s Melton School, and one Rabbi Garten is proud of, is the inclusive and pluralistic community the school has created. 

Melton “has become a meeting ground for the community’s pluralism. People from all different synagogues -- humanists, non-believers, men and women,” all observances and people who otherwise might not have met, are represented, explains Rabbi Garten. “People find commonality and together learn what it means to be traditional and non-traditional. The classes engender conversations.” 

Indeed, the Melton curriculum covers various topics of interest to all people, including the whys of Jewish living, Jewish ethics to inform decision-making, contemporary and ancient insights into the Bible, critical moments in Jewish history, modern Israeli and Jewish culture and more.  Melton also offers a very extensive travel program where people can go on study missions to Israel and different Jewish communities around the world which allows people to learn Jewish history as they travel.  

Here in Ottawa, the SJCC will be piloting a new inclusive learning program starting in the spring. 

“One of the courses called 'Members of the Tribe’ has been adapted for adult learners of diverse abilities. The course is expected to be offered between April and June,” says Potechin. “We are just putting the finishing touches on our plans. In an effort to be more inclusive, Melton is also working on another upcoming project whereby the curriculum will be adapted for people who are deaf.” 

For anyone interested in learning more about the Melton school, please contact Potechin at  Lastly, expressing the attitude that sums up why Ottawa’s small community wins big-time awards, Potechin wants the community to know that thanks to a very generous donor, the SJCC has the ability to offer scholarships. “If people can’t afford the fee, we can help. We can visit that case by case to help people who want to learn.”