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