Why My Congregation Hosts “A Taste of Judaism®” Classes – and Yours Should, Too
by Rabbi Marc Katz
Over the past few years I have had the pleasure of hosting A Taste of Judaism® classes at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y. The first time was at a local restaurant; the second was in the synagogue building. Over the course of teaching this class, I have learned a number of important lessons and have seen many benefits. When it works, here is what congregations and participants can get out of the class.
- Students begin to build a scaffolding for later study.
Learning works in cycles. Students hear terms, then revisit them. They think they know something, but later realize they don’t know as much as they think they do, which prompts them to commit their learning to memory a second time. I have found that the structure of A Taste of Judaism® – spending one class each on Torah, God, and the Jewish people – provides a wonderful framework for further study, whether through independent reading or classes such as a longer Introduction to Judaism course. It’s as if students have a newly minted filing cabinet of Jewish knowledge. Later, they’ll learn something about prayer and stick it in with the rest of those mental files labeled “God”; they learn about social justice and file that information with “how to relate to the Jewish people and the world at large.” Taste of Judaism® students who go on to take more in-depth classes tend to be more engaged, excited, and remember much more than their fellow students.
- It’s a fun challenge / thought-experiment for instructors.
I studied for five years in rabbinical school and have spent countless hours learning about Torah, God, and the Jewish people. I could teach a many-weeks-long course on any one of these topics. Yet, as an instructor, I somehow had to condense each topic into only a few hours. As I taught about God, I had to decide which of the many voices in our 3,000-year-old tradition to incorporate. Would I teach what people said about God in the Middle Ages? Would I incorporate modern thinkers? Would I leave time for personal exploration? Students understand they won’t learn everything in three sessions, but they expect to be given a cogent and intact view of the broad strokes of any topic. Teaching this course allowed me to examine what I thought were the central facets of God, Torah, and the Jewish people and impelled me to communicate them effectively. I’m a better teacher and rabbi because of it.
- The course helps you meet many people who you would not ordinarily encounter.
Because of the nature of the course, I was introduced to so many stories that I may not have heard otherwise. Longer basic Judaism courses are made up of primarily three categories of people: couples who want to raise their children as Jews, people interested in conversion, and Jews who want to learn more. In addition to these three categories, A Taste of Judaism® included others: clergy from other faiths, Christians who wanted a wider understanding of all religions, atheists who wanted to better know what they were rejecting, people exploring the conversion process but who were not ready to commit to a full class, and newly engaged couples in interfaith families who were not interested in raising their children as Jews but wanted to better understand the Jewish side of the family. Because of this diversity, the conversations were often richer than I imagined, the questions more insightful and creative, and the energy palpably different than anything I had encountered before.
- It is a great introduction to the multiple entry points of Judaism and the Jewish community.
The three-fold structure of the course lets students know that Judaism is multifaceted and that it has a space for them even if they don’t connect with one part of the religion. If a student doesn’t believe in God but loves the intellectual rigor of the Torah class, or if he isn’t analytical but is inspired by learning about social justice, he will realize there is a place for him in Reform Judaism. If done correctly, he will also understand his place in the community, not only intellectually but programmatically. To accomplish this, the class on God should include an explanation of local prayer services, and the class on Torah should end with students receiving resources on classes for further study.
I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to teach this course and look forward to teaching it again in the future. The course is best run a few weeks or months before a longer course so students have something to turn to after study. For both students and teachers, the URJ’s A Taste of Judaism® class is an extremely valuable experience, and I urge congregations to apply.
Rabbi Marc Katz is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Interested in hosting this free, three-week class in your community? Consider making A Taste of Judaism® a permanent part of your congregation’s outreach strategy to unaffiliated Jews, non-Jews, intermarried couples, and adult children of intermarriage. The Union for Reform Judaism offers advertising grants to help jump-start your effort. Learn more about the class and apply for an advertising grant.