Continuing Education

Gratz alumna RuthAnn Crosby has started a distance learning program for students in Alaska.

Reaching Across the Alaskan Tundra to Provide Jewish Studies

A Gratz alumna is using technology to bridge a 4,300-mile gap in adult Jewish education.

RuthAnn Crosby, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Jewish Studies from Gratz College (in 2005 and 2006, respectively) is on one end of a learning partnership that ties Philadelphia to a small Jewish community in Wasilla, Alaska. On the other end is Dr. Ruth Sandberg, the Leonard and Ethel Landau Professor of Rabbinics at Gratz.

Together, Crosby and Sandberg have linked adult students in remote Alaska with the vitality of the Gratz community.

“What Gratz brings is a professional level of education,” Crosby said. “We have options for Jewish community education and online classes, but what we didn’t have was a place where students could gather in a room and have the socialization of being in class. It’s nice to have a place of community, a place to sit and talk together, a place to be warm and have coffee and listen to a great teacher.” 

Crosby, who went back to school in 2001 after a devastating divorce and a bad case of meningitis, pursued a career as a chaplain specializing in grief following trauma. She served as chaplain and admissions officer for Gratz for two years before moving to Wasilla in 2008.

Crosby’s rabbi asked her to consider teaching courses in Wasilla, a request that led in 2012 to the establishment of Chessed Alaska, a nonprofit organization based on a Hebrew word that means “loving kindness.” Chessed Alaska promotes interfaith acceptance by providing people with a deeper understanding of Hebrew scriptures and Jewish life.

This year, Crosby reached out to Sandberg, who had served as a mentor and friend when Crosby was a Gratz student. Sandberg agreed to teach a four-week course called “The Jewishness of Jesus,” which ended in mid-July.

Every Monday for four weeks, Crosby hosted students in a classroom at Chessed Alaska. Sandberg joined the course via Zoom, teaching and engaging with students for two hours.

“This was the first adult education class I’ve done from a distance,” said Sandberg, who also directs Gratz’s MA in Interfaith Leadership. “It wasn’t exactly face-to-face in a classroom, but it was second best.”

Sandberg said she structured her course, “The Jewishness of Jesus,” to reach both Jewish and Christian students. Her reading materials, lectures and discussions focus on gaining an appreciation of how much influence Judaism had on Christianity—and how much Christianity owes its roots to Judaism.

“In Alaska, there are much fewer options for students to take the kind of courses Gratz has to offer,” Sandberg said. “Wasilla has a relatively small Jewish population, which means they have a lot of interactions with non-Jewish people. I was hoping this course would give students a shared appreciation of the commonalities.”

The partnership expands Gratz’s reach to the tundra of Alaska and furthers its mission of helping the Jewish world. For Crosby, it allows her to maintain her cherished connection with Gratz.

“Gratz came into my life at a time when everything was falling apart,” she said. “Gratz was more than a college experience. It brought me back to life. Gratz didn’t just embrace me to educate me, but it embraced me to lift my soul.

Born in Atlanta, raised in South Carolina and married for 27 years to a military husband, Crosby was an adult before she began exploring her Jewish heritage. At Gratz, she learned to embrace that part of her life—and decided she wanted to share it with others.

Crosby affectionately refers to her courses in Alaska as “Gratz’s northwest annex.” The online partnership with Sandberg allows her to help more people experience Gratz.

“Our Jewish community here wants to be able to interface with more people about the culture of Judaism,” she said. “It’s always been my dream for more people to learn at Gratz.”