be jewish

for introduction or conversion?

I began teaching “Introduction to Judaism” courses for the (then) Union of American Hebrew Congregations our first year after ordination shortly after we moved to New York City. Debbie was Assistant Rabbi at Central Synagogue and I was on the staff of the Leadership Development Division of the UJA-Federation Campaign. My job entailed organizing events around the city that would bring out young Jewish professionals (Jewish “Yuppies“) and involve them in Jewish life. It was mostly a “group-work” and managerial job. Teaching the Intro course offered me a chance to do something of a classically more rabbinic nature. The classes were billed as an “Introduction” not for “Conversion”. However, many of the people taking the class were there as the first step in their conversion to Judaism. I continued to teach this or a similar class, at least once a year (except for one year hiatus in the early 1990s), until the year we left San Diego, 2006. While I continued to maintain that it was an introduction to Judaism, I certainly presented that Judaism in a way that I would find positive and appealing to myself. In a sense, it was as Debbie had me teach a course for her high school students “Judaism through Rabbi Mark’s Eyes”.

Beginning in 1997 I posted the syllabus on my Web site and updated it yearly.

introducing the introduction

I also prepared a number of questions and other materials that I thought would help the students begin the process of exploring their approach to Judaism. In addition, before the days of Ask Moses and Ask A Rabbi I posted questions I received along with responses.

Early on I noticed that those beginning the process of exploring Judaism felt an initial discomfort. The first session of class we always needed a few extra chairs, because nobody wanted to sit next to someone they did not know. As though to say: “I know why I’m here, but I don’t know about you, and whether it is safe to sit beside you.” I developed a “Get Acquainted Grid” (similar to the “I’ve done that too” grid for preparing for Rosh haShannah) to help those attending meet each other and show that they were all much more similar than they feared.

get acquainted grid

the 'get acquainted grid'; click to download a full PDF file

I also wanted to know more about my students. What knowledge of Jewish life did they bring to the class? To facilitate that I prepared a number of questions for them to answer after the first session.

  • First Questions
    • If I could learn only one thing in this class, it would be:
    • That aspect of the Jewish experience that makes me most uncomfortable is:
    • The most exciting aspect of the Jewish experience is:
    • The most meaningful experience I’ve had with religion was:
    • From my point of view, the greatest problem facing the Jewish people is:
    • The best advice an elder once gave me is:
    • A Jewish book or personality that has strongly influenced me is:
    • The most important aspect of religion is:
    • My favorite Jewish ritual is:
  • Second Questions… Please List:
    • Five major personal questions about Judaism:
    • Three most problematic aspects of Judaism:
    • Three most positive aspects of Judaism:
    • Five important things about Judaism you already know:

After a number of years of doing hundreds of demonstrations of Nisus Writer at Macworld and other venues I realized that “teaching” and “selling” are comparable activities. I have a “product” the fine qualities of which I want to show others. As a teacher, however, I understand that I don’t have to “close” the deal. In fact, as a teacher I do not ever want to close the deal. I want to keep “selling” continuously.

I hope others will continue to find this material worthwhile.

Last updated: Monday, October 18, 2010