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Milwaukee Jewish Professionals Earn Graduate Degrees Through Spertus

Milwaukee Jewish Professionals Earn Graduate Degrees Through Spertus

By Lee Fensin for The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle


Elana Kahn-Oren

It didn’t take long for Ellie Gettinger to declare, “I’m in.”

That came after the first meeting to find out who wanted “in” to the Spertus Institute’s Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies program. Gettinger, 34, is married, has two young daughters and has a full-time job as education director at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, a program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. She had moved here 12 years ago after graduating from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in Jewish studies.

“For many years I was trying to figure out how I could go back to school, what with a young family and work,” Gettinger said. “I just couldn’t put everything on hold to go after my dream. But this program makes it so easy to do it all.”

The program involves seven to eight sessions — three hours each, one night a week — of coursework taught in Milwaukee, mentoring and a project related to the professional work being done by the students.

The MAJPS is a two-year graduate program specifically designed to advance the business expertise and Jewish knowledge of professionals working in the Jewish community.

The program began in 2007. After Chicago-based Spertus approached the Milwaukee Jewish Federation about becoming a partner with the program in 2014, Rabbi Hannah Greenstein wasn’t surprised when the response was positive. “We have amazing Jewish professionals in our community who want to enrich themselves,” said Greenstein, vice president of Outreach, Israel and Overseas for the MJF. She said the community also will benefit by having more educated professionals.

Gettinger is one of nine Milwaukee professionals involved with the program — eight are women. A scholarship through Spertus was one of the attractions. “I didn’t have to mortgage my family’s future so I could get a Master’s,” Gettinger said.

The main roadblocks in Milwaukee for recruiting students were time-intensive jobs and finances, Greenstein said, noting the cost is approximately $5,000 per year for two years despite scholarships.

Among others who committed was Elana Kahn-Oren, director of the MJF’s Jewish Community Relations Council. She wanted to further her education, “but thought it was out of reach. I had two teenage daughters and a demanding job, so my finances and time were tight. This opportunity fits with my work schedule.”

Toni Davison Levenberg, director since 2008 of the Steve and Shari Sadek Family Camp Interlaken of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, had similar feelings.

“I had always thought about going for a Master’s, so I looked at this as an incredible opportunity and jumped on board,” she said. “With two young children and a career, I didn’t expect something like this to come up for me.” Levenberg added, “The program, the cost and the outcome were all very attractive. Education is so important.” Spertus requires a minimum of eight Jewish professionals for each of its student groups.

Dr. Dean Bell, provost and vice president at Spertus, said the program has eight groups, including ones in Israel, Pittsburgh and Canada. Bell said there have been groups as large as 16, but that an average group has 10 students, 75 percent of whom typically are female. He said ages range from the mid-20s to late-40s or early-50s in Milwaukee.

“This is a more mature group with more experience than what we might have elsewhere,” Bell said. Bell, who often teaches a group’s first course, added, “It is a rigorous program. We’ve had people enroll but drop out after they realize the time commitment. It’s helpful when we have organizations such as the Milwaukee Jewish Federation that are excited about the program and help recruit students and encourage them.”

Although it’s early — only two sessions had been completed by the end of August — Kahn-Oren said, “I can already see that this has made me a better professional. Working with the Council is very much about today, and now I will be more effective and more valuable having a more structured understanding of Jewish history and the philosophy of Jewish thought. “And it makes me a better, stronger and richer person. My jobs have required me to know a little about a lot of things, and this program provides me with more depth.”

Some students were concerned about becoming re-acclimated to a classroom after being out of school for many years. What would it be like to read and write academic papers again?

“It’s been interesting tapping back into that part of my brain,” Levenberg said of her writing. Levenberg persists because “as a camp director and a parent, I want to get every bit of education I can so I can better relate to children and teens and make a bigger Jewish impact on their lives.”

Bell said he doesn’t judge the success of a program by enrollment, “but by what we know people are doing with their learning.” Kahn-Oren enrolled despite some hesitation. “Could I sit and read, comprehend and absorb all that is required?” she wondered. “My daughters hear me say, ‘This is hard, but I’ve got to do it anyway.’ I think they’re proud of me.”

Lee Fensin, retired sports editor of The Freeman in Waukesha, contributes to the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Pictured at left: Elena Kahn-Oren.

Below top to bottom: Toni Davison Levenberg, Ellie Gettinger, Rabbi Hannah Greenstein, and Dr. Dean P. Bell.

Toni Davison Levenberg

Ellie Gettinger

Rabbi Hannah Greenstein

Dr. Dean Bell