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For Patti Cohen, classes at Spertus merit a 16-hour trip—from Canada!

For Patti Cohen, classes at Spertus merit a 16-hour trip—from Canada!

By Simone Iris Cohen for Winnipeg Jewish Review

Most of the years I’ve known Patti Cohen (we’re not related), she has been traveling back and forth to the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago, racking up credits in various aspects of Jewish Studies. The idea of making such a trip back and forth to study piqued my interest, so I was pleased to be assigned to interview her for Winnipeg Jewish Review. So enthusiastic was I, in fact, that what was intended to be an interview became a conversation. Here is the gist of it:

There is no mystery about why Patti kept going to Chicago. She’s from Chicago. In 1974 she earned an undergrad degree in Elementary Education at the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana. After graduation, 1976-77, she began a few courses in Jewish Studies at Spertus. “I took ‘Modern Hebrew’ and ‘Holocaust Studies’”, she told me. In 1979, she married and moved to Winnipeg.

Winnipeg to Chicago Road Map

Fast forward to 1984: “I completed a Masters of Education from University of Manitoba” There was probably a lot of changing diapers and making dinners in between, but we’ll stay focused. Having been once bitten by the Jewish Studies bug, Patti began to desire more. When Winnipeg’s Rady Centre offered the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School she completed the two year program, plus one of the additional Scholar’s courses, and was soon recruited to teach in the program.. Still, she “…was looking for a continuation of my Jewish learning and there was no Judaic Studies program at either University of Manitoba or University of Winnipeg, only a general Theology program, which I didn’t want. I naturally thought of Spertus since I had been a student there in the past." 
Just to tantalize all you other Judaica junkies, here is a list of the courses Patti has taken to date: Religion of Biblical Israel; Medieval Judaism; Modern Jewish Experiences; Jewish Theology; Biblical Wisdom Literature; Postmodern Judaism; Jewish Thinking; Women in Jewish Law; Jews of the Ottoman Empire; Judaism and Christianity: the Parting of the Ways. Two more she has yet to include for her degree are: 'Jewish Practices', and 'The Rabbinic Mind'. Her degree? It will be a Masters in Jewish Studies (MAJS).

Patti CohenGetting together with Patti for this article was a challenge because, as you can imagine, she is very busy. Much hard work is going into the completion of her two most recent courses: ‘Judaism and Christianity: the Parting of the Ways’, and: ‘Women in Jewish Law’. Spertus courses can be taken in several different ways: online; by video tape (being replaced by CD); independent study/directed reading under supervision of a professor; one-week seminars (offered every March and July). Before the beginning of each seminar a reading list and syllabus is sent out, enabling students to prepare ahead of time.

I am jealous. Back in the 80s, to bring my Jewish Education up to an adult level, I enrolled as a mature student in University of Manitoba, but only a minor was available, through the Department of Religion.  Later, as Chairperson of the Scholarship Committee for Canadian Council of Jewish Women, I found that most applicants wishing to go into Jewish Education mostly needed to go to Israel. Spertus must have been a well-kept secret to Canadians.

Patti and I agree that Judaism is like an onion. It has layer within layer, and as your study takes you deeper, it becomes even more motivating, fascinating, and fun. Fortunately for Patti, she was aware of the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, a place where she is able to satisfy her deep craving to explore her heritage.
Driving back and forth to Chicago for lectures seemed an onerous ordeal to me, something like walking uphill to school in town, (after milking the cows), and uphill back again. Yet although the distance each way is 14-16 hours, Patti prefers it. (She had checked out Boston College of Jewish Studies but it was not as flexible and she would have had to fly.) “Although my father was one reason for enrolling at Spertus, he passed away before I could take advantage of a combined visit/seminar. Now I combine visits with close friends and the Door County Folk Festival.” If she becomes overtired or the weather turns bad there are always motels.

As far as Patti knows, no one else from Winnipeg is doing this, although most of the students are “not from Chicago”. They come from all over the United States and Canada, and no wonder! The beauty of studying at Spertus is that it is designed for people who can’t be full time students. Scheduling is convenient and flexible, catering to working professionals with a life outside of school. Many of the students are seniors, but a variety of ages and professions are represented in the Masters and Doctoral programs; Jewish educators, Rabbis ranging from Modern to Orthodox, Christians from the Bible belt, a hospital Chaplain or two, all immersing themselves in Jewish topics. Some are just people who like to learn; they call themselves Spertus junkies.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Winnipeg Jewish Review