I am very active personally and professionally in the New Orleans Jewish community. Recently, I began teaching a beginner adult education class entitled “The Stories of Genesis and Exodus.” This eight week series is free and open to the public with no prior knowledge required.
On our first day of class, I had everyone introduce themselves and say a sentence or two about what they hoped to learn. The make-up of this class is very interesting. The students include three individuals who are in the process of converting to Judaism; one Catholic who has been married to a Jew and participating in Jewish life for over 20 years; and one woman who identifies as Christian but recently learned of her Jewish heritage and wants a full understanding of what Jews believe and what our holidays are all about.
“I am here to learn THE truth,” this last student said.
And suddenly I realized the serious responsibility of teaching Torah to beginners.
Many years ago, I taught another group of adult beginners—those brave enough to attempt an adult beginner ballet class. Back then, I recall how surprised I was by how much more difficult it was to slow myself down. To go back to the basics, and teach new learners the concepts behind the techniques, even before breaking down the physical basics, bit by bit. I was usually extremely exhausted and sore after those classes, unlike going through my regular motions teaching intermediate and advanced classes. You would think a beginner class, with no advanced moves and only basic skill-building, would be easy! But making sure we have the core concepts and basic moves down, going from nothing to step one, is sometimes the hardest step of all.
Teaching Torah is no different.
While I thought it would be simpler, in actuality, teaching “new Jewish learners” is much more complicated than teaching intermediate Jewish learners, because with the intermediate there is already an understanding. We have shared terminology, make more assumptions, and assume a certain level of “same page knowledge” with those who sit at the intermediate tables. With these beginners, before I could even get to the basics, we needed to talk technique—just as with my dance students.
I realized the first order of business was NOT starting with “In the beginning….” It was to explain that Jewish thought does not consider any one thing as “The” Truth; that is a far more Christian concept. We Jews are filled with questions, interpretations and thousands of years of written thoughts to ponder and learn, which are amazing.
Of course, we do thank God in our blessing after the reading of Torah reading for giving us a “Torah of Truth.” But as we learn to study Jewishly, we realize that this can mean a Torah full of truths, not one single Truth. We can also have a rich discussion of the beauty of the truths in the Torah, with an understanding of the difference between truth and fact, between Truth and truths, and so on.
I had imagined this adult beginner class would be “easy.” Instead, it is a daunting task—and also an awesome responsibility. I look forward to next week when I walk in much more prepared to listen first, and teach second instead of the other way around. We will focus on the technique as much as the steps, learning like dancers.
See there, I am already learning again… and that is the truth!
At my congregation in New Orleans, I teach an adult beginner Hebrew class. There are many different types of students in the class: Jews who want to be able to better follow the prayers in Hebrew during services; Christians who want to be able to read passages from the Bible in the original language; Jews preparing for an adult bar/bat mitzvah; and those in the process of conversion to Judaism.
Last week I fielded a question from a woman in that last group. Her question was not about Hebrew, but about Judaism: “I am coming to the Rabbi’s classes, I have learned the history and holidays and all pertinent information, I am learning how to read Hebrew… but I still don’t think I understand what it feels like to be a Jew. What should it ‘feel’ like?”
I invited her to attend Shabbat services with me that Friday night and sit with me so I could show her in live action what being Jewish feels like to me – how praying, hoping, and coming together with other Jews moves me, personally. She was hesitant at first; wasn’t there an easier answer? Could she “Google it on her own,” or figure out some other way to get this question answered, on her own time frame and by herself?
Quite simply… no.
Judaism is a communal experience. Yes, we can learn information on our own, but when we attend a class or have a study buddy, that’s when there is debate and discussion— and that is the Jewish way to learn. Yes, we can pray on our own, but when we attend a Shabbat service, meet and greet others, and pray together, we share a bond with our community like no other—and that is the Jewish way to pray. Judaism is, above all, a shared experience. No matter how big or small our Jewish community, the fact that we come together is meaningful.That sense of connection—that is the way to “feel Jewish.”
I don’t know if there is a way to teach someone a feeling, but when you show them how you feel things and where you feel things and why, they begin to understand and maybe can feel it for themselves. My student did come to services last Friday night, and sat beside me. After being nervous about the initial peer pressure to get up and greet someone that you don’t know, she participated. After experiencing the connections, right from the beginning of the worship experience, she said to me: “This really is a communal experience.”
Quite simply… yes.
Here’s a lesson for Jewish kids I came across this December — which is a pretty good lesson for adults, too.
One of my favorite things about teaching young children is watching their faces relax into a trance when they are absorbed in a read-aloud storybook. The dreamy look on a child’s face as they listen to a story read is amazing. It’s unlike any kind of entertainment a mere screen can provide, new doors opening as a child is completely absorbed into the story.
At our last Children’s Shabbat at Temple Sinai in New Orleans, I was privileged to read aloud the wonderful book, The Only One Club by Jane Naliboff. This book tells a story that begins with a Jewish child sitting in a classroom as the teacher announces that for that day, they will be making Christmas decorations. From there, the child decides to create a new club called “The Only One Club,” as she is the only Jewish child in her class. One by one, each of the children join The Only One Club as they each have something unique and special about themselves that qualifies them for the club.
After reading this charming story, we went on to create our own unique Hanukkah wrapping paper with hand and foot prints which of course the kids loved!
At this time of year, it’s a nice reminder that we are indeed unique — and that we should celebrate not only what makes us special, but also what makes everyone else special. It’s like the Margaret Mead quote: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”
Wouldn’t it be amazing if all of us adults looked in the face of “the other” and marveled at their own uniqueness instead of fearing the differences between us? That’s a lesson I think we can take from Hanukkah and carry right on forward with us into the new year. Here’s to a great 2015!