PORTLAND – Program director Fae Silverman calls it a conversation on a local and international level. The executive director of the Jewish Community Alliance calls it transformational. Student Denise Swyers calls it a safe place to be Jewish and share things about herself.

“It” is a new two-year program being offered at the Jewish Community Alliance on Ashmont Street, which backers say has opened new doors and possibilities for adults to explore in their Jewish lives.

The Florence Melton Adult Mini-School is a franchise of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School Institute, based at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The two-year program creates an international community of schools that gives adults a chance to learn more about Judaism and participate in active discussions. There are about 60 locations worldwide, including South Africa, England, Australia, Canada and states all over the U.S.

Emily Chaleff, the executive director, believed that Portland would be a good location for the school because of the engaged and thoughtful community.

“Part of the reason I was excited to move to Portland was because the people are intellectually curious, thoughtful, and there wasn’t anything like the Melton School here,” said Chaleff.

The curriculum is based on four books — “The Rhythms of Jewish Living,” “The Purposes of Jewish Living,” “The Dramas of Jewish Living Throughout the Ages” and “The Ethics of Jewish Living.”

However, classes are dominated by lively discussions to enhance learning and add perspective. Students, who meet for 2½ hours a week for 30 weeks, do not take tests, do homework or get grades. Instead, they engage in discussions and texts about Jewish thought, practice, ethics and history.

“Sometimes when you talk about Jewish heritage, things can come out,” Swyers said. “I really credit Ellie Miller.”

Miller is one of the three teachers at the school. The fee for a year is $613, the number of commandments in the Hebrew Bible, but students can pay more money to help form scholarships for students in need.

The inaugural year attracted 43 students, ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s.

“You’re never to old to learn,” said Swyers, who declined to state her age. She took the class with her husband of 32 years, Bill Swyers. He isn’t Jewish, and she said this added a whole new perspective to the classroom discussions.

Swyers said that it was very nice to share her first year of learning with him and that it opened a whole new avenue of communication between them.

Students take the class for different reasons, said Silverman. Some students take the class because they are hungry for knowledge. Some women didn’t get the chance to learn as much about Hebrew when they were younger. Others join because they want to help build a community for themselves.

For Swyers, it was a way to bring Judaism back into her life. She said that after her father died after her eighth birthday, parts of her Judaism left with him.

“I knew I was Jewish, but I faked my way,” she said.

The class has opened up a whole new world for her, she said.

Silverman hopes that it does that for many more Jews in the state. There is a graduate school program she is hoping to hold if there is interest from the Maine school’s first graduating class.

“This is a conversation happening across time and across the world of which Portland, Maine is a part,” Silverman said.

“I’ve fallen in love with my religion again,” Swyers said.

Staff Writer Ellie Cole can be contacted at 791-6359 or at:

[email protected]