When he was in college, Matthew Silverman read the entire Hebrew Bible from back to front. So it’s no surprise that he found a career in Jewish learning.
“It’s one of my passions to bring learning of everything Judaism has to offer,” he said.
That passion lead him to his current role as the executive director for the Haberman Institute for Jewish Studies in Rockville, which he described as “sophisticated Jewish learning” tailored mostly for retired people in the Washington area.
The institute shares its office with Tikvat Israel Congregation and partners with JCCs and other Jewish organizations in the area. Oftentimes they will come to the Haberman Institute with a specific topic in mind, then Silverman and his staff design a program based on it.
“Every program touches on the history and connects people to their own story,” he said.
Silverman is familiar with the professionals in the Washington region. He grew up in Fairfax and now lives in Montgomery County, where he is a member of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase.
“What we have found working with primarily retired individuals is that this group has the power to bring the teachings to their children and grandchildren,” Silverman said. “The knowledge that they have is passed down from generation to generation.”
He also noticed that in many cases, their Jewish learning has not evolved since their youth.
“A great majority of the learners in the Jewish community go to Hebrew school until they are bar-bat mitzvah age, but they don’t really have any faith development or religious development beyond what a teenager has.”
Silverman came to Haberman in April 2020, right as the institute was canceling many of its programs due to the pandemic. In the first few months, he oversaw the institute’s relocation to online programming.
“We were quickly trying to adapt and pivot as everyone else was. By May and June we were able to put most of our programming online,” he said.
The shift has worked to the institute’s benefit, Silverman said. Its reach has extended beyond the local area with occasional participants from other countries.
It’s also grown in size. Silverman said that their Zoom programs have recently had between 500 and 800 people tune in. He credits the convenience of virtual learning for the increase in participants.
“On any given night it can take you a great amount of time to cross the bridge during traffic,” he said. “Now with the virtual option, anyone can join anywhere.”
Silverman often seeks lesser-known topics to cover at the institute. One is a series on the history and culture of Southern Jews.
“So many people didn’t know that Texas had so many Jews and that Texas had such deep history of Jewish learning,” he said.
The institute connects people with their heritage and with scholars on various facets of the Jewish experience, Silverman said, adding that he watched such a connection recently after the institute hosted a program on Ottoman-Jewish women. Some of the participants were of Ottoman-Jewish descent and were able to connect with the speaker afterward to learn more about their heritage.
Silverman said that, in addition to connections, the greatest thing that participants take from the Haberman Institute’s programming, and Jewish learning in general, is peace of mind.
“The world can feel very chaotic. One thing Judaism offers is comfort, hope and understanding of the world around us,” he said. “It helps us make sense of this ever-changing world we live in.”