Are you curious about Judaism? Interested in getting a basic introduction to the subject? Considering conversion, or just want to figure out your in-laws? It’s that time of year again, folks – “Intro” classes are beginning in many synagogues!
I teach two such classes in the East Bay Area of CA: “Exploring Judaism” starts this Sunday at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. The class meets for an hour each Sunday, starting at 10:10am. For more information, click on the link which will take you to the registration page. My other class “Intro to the Jewish Experience” will begin October 22 at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA. That class meets for an hour and a half on Wednesday evenings, starting at 7:30pm. For more information or to sign up, check out the class page in the online Lehrhaus Judaica catalog.
Don’t live in Berkeley or Lafayette? Check with your local synagogue or Jewish Federation to find out what classes are starting in your area.
Some concerns I hear every year:
Will you expect me to convert? [No]
Will you burn me at the stake because I’m L, G, B, or T? [No, I’m a lesbian myself.]
Will you be mad if I don’t believe in God? [No, we’ll talk about the many different Jewish ideas about God.]
What are you “selling,” rabbi? [Nothing other than a learning experience.]
This class is very expensive! [If it is too much for you, say so. Financial aid is often available.]
If you have questions or needs, speak up. This is your first lesson in Jewish community.
My classes have multiple entry points. If not now, maybe then! Get in touch for more information.
I hope that you find an “Intro” class in your area! If you will be taking one of mine, feel free to leave a comment and say “Hi!”
Are you interested in conversion to Judaism? Did you recently become a member of the tribe?
BecomingJewish.net offers support and information for anyone seeking conversion or recently become Jewish. It has additional resources for users living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
They have solid information about the process of becoming a Jew and about conversion outside the U.S. They also have first-person accounts by Jews by Choice about their own experiences.
Their directory of rabbis is a resource for anyone “shul shopping” [looking for a synagogue] because it includes stories by people who have converted with each Bay Area rabbi, and who have gotten to know their rabbi well. If you want to get a taste of what the rabbi at Beth Somewhere is like, this is a great way to do it.
Full disclosure: The site is staffed by my dear friend Dawn Kepler (who mentored me through conversion) and my spouse, Linda Burnett. But seriously, even if I didn’t love the people running it, this is a great resource!
“These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt” – thus begins the last Torah portion in the Book of Numbers. The books of Exodus and Numbers tell the story of the Israelites from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan River. This final Torah portion pauses to review where they’ve been before they cross into the land of their ancestors, the land they have been seeking all along. Their journey did not end with the river crossing, though. In truth, the journey of the Jewish People was only beginning.
Where are you on your Jewish journey? Are you a tourist, checking us out? (That’s OK, by the way – you are welcome to learn all about us.) Are you on a journey toward Judaism, seeking to connect with the tradition and perhaps convert? Are you already Jewish, but looking for a deeper connection with your people and your tradition?
My guess is that if you’ve come looking for this website, you’re on some sort of a Jewish journey. To get the most out of it, and especially to get where you want to go, it’s wise sometimes to stop and take your bearings.
Do you have a Jewish community? Traveling through the wilderness alone is miserable, if not impossible. Joshua ben Perachyah, one of the most ancient rabbis, used to say, “Provide yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend; and judge every man towards merit.” In other words, don’t journey alone. Whether your Jewish community is a class, or a congregation, or a club, or a chavurah, you need other Jews. Otherwise you’ll lose your way.
What’s your immediate goal? If your goal is conversion to Judaism, there are specific steps to take. If your goal is to learn more about Judaism, find a class! Many synagogues and Jewish community centers offer “Intro” classes that are appropriate for a wide range of learners. If your goal involves making a Jewish choice, like how to raise your children, or how to manage within an interfaith relationship, local Jewish institutions can point you to resources and there are also websites with good information. Or you may have a very specific goal. There also your Jewish community can come into play: look for Jews whose path you admire, and learn from them, whether it is how to make bagels or how to speak Ladino.
Where have you been already? Just as Moses paused to recount the journeys of the Israelites, you may want to make your own map of where you’ve already been. What worked? What was a good experience? What was difficult? Was something both difficult and a good experience? What was worthwhile? What wasn’t?
Where are you afraid to go? The Israelites often stopped in their tracks to wail that they were scared, they hated the wilderness, and that slavery seemed like a pretty sweet deal. They were afraid to enter the land, they were afraid of the wilderness, and in their fear, sometimes they did dreadful things. But sometimes the things that scare us the most turn out to be the best journeys of all. If something looks scary, or feels too difficult, that might be a sign that it’s exactly your best next step, whether it’s learning Hebrew or calling a real, live, offline rabbi.
I am on my own Jewish journey, too. Mine started, improbably, in Catholic school back in Nashville. Today I’m a 59 year old rabbi pursuing new challenges. Thank you for including me in your journey!
There are various ways of keeping track of things in Jewish time. One can celebrate the exact date of something in the Jewish calendar (say, 11 Sivan, 5774) or the Gregorian calendar (June 8, 2014.) My way of keeping track of this anniversary is to celebrate when a particular Torah portion comes up in the calendar: this week’s portion, Shelach-Lecha, the story of the scouts (Numbers 31:1 – 15:41.)
Shelach-Lecha was the Torah portion the week I became a Jew. I think of this week (whenever it falls, depending on the year) as my Jewish birthday, and it’s a big deal to me, in a quiet sort of way. I don’t give a party, but I do attend services and spend some time reflecting on my life as a Jew.
The story in the portion is pivotal for the Israelites in the wilderness. God tells Moses to send scouts into the Promised Land, as they are camped just outside it. God even tells Moses which men to send. Twelve scouts go into the land. Ten of them report that it is totally scary, the people are giants, and we’ll all die there. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, come back and say, hey, it’s fine. The people are so frightened by the account of the ten, however, that they panic. God is disgusted by their reaction, and says that clearly these people are not ready for the Promised Land – the next generation will get to go, but not them. And that’s how the 40 years in the desert happened.
What I took from the story at the time of my conversion was simple: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” There were things about Judaism and the Jewish community at Temple Sinai that I loved. But I knew that there was lots I didn’t know; I was more ignorant than many of the children. I’d taken an “Intro” class, I’d studied for a year, but I found Hebrew very difficult and some of the social stuff very challenging. For instance, I wasn’t a “huggy” person – I never touched strangers – and at that synagogue, people were constantly hugging and kissing (and for the record, they still do.) I wanted to fit in, but I still had a lot of fears.
Years later, I know that it was reasonable to have some fears. But I am so very glad that I took the risk of “entering the Land.”
The story in the Torah is full of people taking risks. Some were very well-calculated risks, but others were true leaps of faith. At Sinai, as they are offered the Torah, the people say, “We will do and we will hear.” In other words, they agreed to the Torah before they knew what was in it. Becoming a Jew is something like that: you learn what you can, you hang with the community and see what it’s like, and then the day comes when it’s time to commit.
There has been some discussion of late in the Jewish press, wondering if the process of conversion is too long and too involved. “Should we be more welcoming?” some wonder.
My take on it is that a year is the least it can take in most circumstances. Becoming a Jew is a shift of identity, and it has many aspects. Candidates for conversion often encounter surprises. Some discover that the parents they thought would be horrified, weren’t. Some discover that their relatives have unpleasant ideas about Jews. Some discover that it really hurts not to have Christmas – and others are surprised when they hardly miss it. Some find that the more they go to synagogue, the happier they are – and others find that they don’t enjoy being part of the community. Some think about Israel for the first time, and have to get used to the idea that as a Jew, they will be connected to it whether they like it or not.
It takes time to have these experiences. It takes time and support to process them. And some of those experiences may be deal-breakers. It’s easy to focus on the intellectual tasks: learning prayers and vocabulary. However, the emotional work of this transition is very serious business. It involves letting go of some aspects of the self, and adopting new aspects of identity. I am still the person who showed up at the rabbi’s office, all those years ago – I still have memories of Catholic school, and my Catholic school handwriting. I had to let go of some things: my habit of crossing myself whenever I heard a siren, for instance. It was a reflex left over from years before, but it took time to fade away. It took time and effort to figure out how I might respond as a Jew to a sign that someone was in trouble.
After a year of study, that process was well underway. I can’t imagine being “ready” any sooner.
The ten scouts were scared. They weren’t ready. I suspect that even though Joshua and Caleb are celebrated as “good” scouts, they weren’t really ready either. They talked as if going into the Land was no big deal.
It takes time to change, and change is an uncomfortable process. The midbar, the wilderness, is a frustrating place. It’s big and formless and full of scary things. But sometimes it is only by passing through the wildnerness that we can become our truest selves.
I said in an earlier post that I was going to share some online study resources. Here are some favorites (not an exhaustive list). I have included only free sites, although several of them accept donations. If you use one of them a lot, consider contributing to them.
Hebcal.com – This is an online Jewish calendar, easy to use and easy to personalize. If I could have access to only one Jewish website, this would be it. It will tell you what day it is today and what Torah readings are assigned to the day (both for Israel and for the Diaspora, which sometimes differ.) You can go there and use the “date converter” to find out what day in the Hebrew calendar you were born. It will give you links from each weekly Torah reading to the reading itself, to an online tikkun (reading with and without vowel markings), and to assorted divre Torah (short sermons and studies) on the portion. You can even export parts of the Jewish calendar to your Google or Outlook calendar. Hebcal.com ROCKS.
MyJewishLearning.com – This is a searchable, hyperlinked, massive Jewish learning site. The articles are written simply and clearly by reputable scholars who know their subjects. It has recipes, definitions, holiday information, news, and a couple of online magazines. There are blogs addressing every imaginable aspect of modern Jewish life. Best of all, it’s a very inclusive site, respectful of all branches and flavors of Judaism.
JewishVirtualLibrary.org – This is another massive Jewish site full of great information. Again, the articles are from scholars of repute. It is a bit more challenging reading than MyJewishLearning.com, which may be a plus or a minus, depending on your interest and background.
JTA.org – The Jewish Telegraphic Agency calls itself “the Global Jewish News Source.” When there is news in the Jewish world and you want information, this is an excellent place to look. You can also sign up for their daily newsletter.
JewishEncyclopedia.com – The Jewish Encyclopedia was published from 1901-1906, and its full text is available online at this site. While it does not have information about topics after 1906, for everything before that it is quite good.
YouTube.com – YouTube is great for “how-to” demonstrations. Want to see exactly how to light Chanukah candles? Search “Chanukah” on YouTube. Want to learn some fun Purim songs? Search YouTube. Want to make a virtual visit to many sites in the Jewish world without buying a plane ticket? Often you can find a video on YouTube that will give you a distinct “You Are There” experience.
ReformJudaism.org – A good central source of information on Reform Judaism online, with links to all the major Reform organizations.
Wikipedia on Judaism is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there are many articles there on Jewish subjects, from the weekly Torah portions to holidays to history. On the other hand, you don’t have any way of knowing how reliable a source the authors are using, or what the background of a particular writer. If you are a beginner, you don’t have much way to know the reliable sources from the unreliable ones.
Beware of any site that trashes other Jews. There are plenty of good websites that don’t do that, so why hang out on those that do? Any site that speaks scornfully of “liberal Jews” or “the Orthodox” is not worth your time.
Beware of allegedly educational sites that are not produced by Jews. Other people sometimes have very peculiar ideas about us, to put it politely. If you read something on a website that is troubling, talk to a rabbi about it or leave a message on a reputable site that has an “ask the Rabbi” feature.
Finally, keep in mind that while the Internet and your computer are powerful tools, there’s no substitute for learning with real live people. Find yourself a rabbi. Find yourself a study partner. There is a richness available in in-person Jewish study that even the best website cannot match.
Are you ethnically Jewish, or culturally Jewish? A religous Jew, or a secular Jew?
In all the loaded discussions of “who’s a Jew” we sometimes lose sight of the many ways that one can be Jewish.
Ethnically Jewish – Do you have a parent who’s Jewish? For much of the Jewish world, that question is worded: Is your mother Jewish? The American Reform Movement broadens that to “a Jewish parent,” provided you were also educated as a Jew. Another way to say it is that they have “Jewish blood” or a “Jewish heritage.” Judaism actually includes many ethnicities: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Persian Jewish, Iraqi Jewish, Ethiopian Jewish, Yemenite Jewish, etc. A person who is ethnically Jewish might or might not feel much connection to other Jews.
Culturally Jewish – Is there some aspect of Jewish culture in which you participate? Does your family mark Passover with some kind of seder? Do you belong to anything Jewish? Do you give to anything Jewish? “Cultural” implies some kind of participation in a culture. “I eat bagels” doesn’t quite do it – a Baptist in Omaha might eat bagels. But do you perk up your ears and feel a sense of kinship when you find out that such-and-such a movie actor is Jewish? Did you have a visceral reaction to the news about Bernie Madoff – did you feel linked to him, even though you never met the guy?
Secular Judaism – “I’m Jewish but not religious.” There’s a long tradition for secular Judaism. Sometimes Christians are puzzled by Jews who don’t go to synagogue or don’t believe in God but who feel fiercely connected to the Jewish People. That’s because Judaism is more than a religion, it’s also an ethnicity, a culture, a whole civilization and worldview. Secular Jews are no less Jewish than their religious cousins, and many are no less serious about their Judaism. Many of the founders of the State of Israel were (or are – a few are still alive) secular Jews.
Religious Judaism – In general, Jews who attend services, observe religious holidays, etc, although you’d be surprised at some of the overlap with other groups. Some synagogue goers go for the Jewish culture available there, not for religious content per se. There’s a joke that circulates about a man who goes to daily minyan and who tells a story about his friend Abe: “Abe goes to minyan to talk with God. I go to talk with Abe.” Synagogues were the first Jewish cultural centers, and they continue to fill that role for some Jews today. But there are also Jews who believe in God, who have lively spiritual lives, and some of them go to synagogue – and some don’t. Go figure.
There are also an increasing number of people in our communities who have been with us since Biblical times: people who live with Jews even though they themselves aren’t Jewish. Generally they find their way to us because they love someone Jewish. Some eventually choose to become Jewish; some have good reasons for not converting. But it is important to remember that in every gathering of Jews, there will also be some people who weren’t “born that way,” and others who are with us for love. Some raise Jewish children, and thereby participate in the Jewish future. At any rate, whenever you are in a Jewish community, remember that they are part of us, too: the Book of Ruth reminds us that King David had a Moabite great-grandmother.
How do you identify Jewishly? Do you find these labels useful, or limiting?
Some of us missed out on a Jewish childhood. We were raised in another tradition, or no tradition at all.
Some of us missed out on parts of it, or something happened that messed everything up.
Let me tell you a little secret: it’s never too late to have a Jewish childhood.
Want to have a bar or bat mitzvah? Talk to your rabbi about studying for an adult bar mitzvah. Yes, you can have a party, too.
Depressed that you never got to play dreidel? Invite people over for a night of Chanukah games and latkes!
Mad that you didn’t get to go to Hebrew school? It isn’t too late to take Hebrew classes.
Sad that you’ll never ask the Four Questions at the seder table? Host a seder with adults, and schedule yourself to chant them – you can do it!
Longing to dress up like Queen Esther on Purim? Or like a firefighter? Why not?
Yearning for a bubbe or a zayde? Talk to your rabbi about adopting a “grandparent.” Someone needs you as much as you need them.
Envious of youth trips to Israel? Ask your rabbi to help you find an affordable program open to your age group.
Wish that someone had taught you how to keep a kosher household, lay tefillin, make matza brei? Ask a friend or take a class!
You are the person in charge of your Jewish experience. If there’s something you want to learn, there’s someone teaching it. If there’s something you want to do, there’s a way. Will it be easy? No, but it might not have been easy as a child, either (ask any bat mitzvah if that Torah portion came easily!)