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!
Confession: I’m still kind of a Yom Kippur rookie.
Yom Kippur has always been a mystery to me. I am from a household of two Jewish parents, but we were not an observant family. The most we did for the High Holidays was having my grandparents over for dinner. I knew Rosh Hashanah was the Jewish New Year, but I did not understand that there was an entire Jewish calendar, and my parents never even approached the subject of Yom Kippur.
Growing up, I always knew I was Jewish, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. I started to learn more about Judaism when I was in college. I sought out the Jewish community and met great friends and also learned a lot about being Jewish. Now, I am living in Jackson, Mississippi, working for a Jewish organization, figuring out my own Jewish observance and traditions—and still trying to figure out Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur gets a bad rap. We go from indulging in delicious food on Rosh Hashanah to fasting on Yom Kippur—kind of a downer. We go from celebrating to apologizing, from “Happy New Year” to “here’s everything we did wrong last year.” So this year, I wanted to try to figure out what Yom Kippur really means, but mostly, what it really means to me.
So I took a survey. I went around the office at the ISJL asking my fellow Education and Community Engagement Fellows to explain the point of Yom Kippur. The best answer I got was that it marks a period of transition. Like the secular New Year, people make resolutions and promises about how they will do better in the coming year. However, Yom Kippur is not only about looking forward to a bright future; it is also about reflecting on your past.
We spend 10 days in flux and get to think about big questions like:
- “What could I have done better this past year?”
- “Am I where I want to be in life?”
- “How have I changed during this past year?”
It is a time to check in with yourself, to not only make sure that you are doing what makes you happy, but also that you are doing good in the world.
- When was your last random act of kindness?
- When was the last time you volunteered?
- How are you going to give back in the coming year?
I find the best way to grow as a person is by giving back to the communities that have helped me along my own path. Before taking on this new perspective, I had a hard time understanding a holiday where we were supposed to think about all of the bad things we’ve done over the year and feel sorry about them. Now, I am excited to think about Yom Kippur as a time for personal reflection. I am going to sit down and make some goals for the next year, but also reflect on all that I learned, accomplished, and struggled with in 5774.
As of now, I’ve started to think about Yom Kippur like a Yoga class. At the beginning of each class, you set your intention, and I want to go through 5775 intentionally. I will think about what has changed me in the past year, and how that has helped me grow. I will think about how I can contribute to my community on both local and global scales. I will use these reflections to make a plan for how I would like to continue to grow in the future. Maybe this will become my tradition, or maybe my relationship with Yom Kippur will continue to evolve—either way, I’m already starting to understand it a bit better.
I took a look at my cell phone clock, which read 7:05 AM. I was incredibly sleepy, but not because I had just woken up. No, this was because I had not even gone to sleep in the first place.
I’m not in college anymore, so I didn’t need to pull an all-nighter to study for a test—this was absolutely, completely voluntary. I was at Limmud Atlanta + Southeast, taking place at Ramah Darom, a gorgeous summer camp. And if I were to go to sleep, that would mean sacrificing a few hours of an unbelievably wonderful Jewish experience.
Limmud Atlanta is hard to describe without seeing it up close and personal, but here’s my best attempt: take a fun Southern camping trip, mix it with a gloriously-overwhelming amount of Jewish learning, and sprinkle a 72-hour-long jam session on top. Stir it all together. Baddabing baddaboom—that’s my short and sweet approximation of Limmud Atlanta.
Here were some of the most memorable, totally-worth-sacrificing sleep experiences I had over the course of the conference.
- Tying together the concept of Tzedakah and episodes of Orange is the New Black
- Making percussion noises to best imitate what the 6th day of creation would sound like, in a session whose title asked me to “Get my Soul Vibration On”
- Learning how to play a board game entitled Settlers of Canaan – all about the Holy Temple in Jerusalem
Limmud Atlanta was educational. It was fun. It was, for close to 72 hours, thoroughly, awesomely ridiculous, in the best and most Jewish of ways.
Most importantly, it reminded of something I’ve long held to be true: Jewish conferences are, without a doubt, one of the best tools towards deepening Jewish identity, both personal and communal. Limmud Atlanta helped me remember that there is no substitute for deeply immersing in Jewish life for an extended period of time—even just a few days.
But some of you might be wondering…okay, so Limmud Atlanta sounds amazing, but what about all of the Jewish conferences out there that aren’t so dynamic? My response might sound a bit unorthodox: it is my heartfelt belief that attending even a sub-par Jewish conference is a substantially better allocation of Jewish time and resources than the vast majority of briefer Jewish engagement experiences.
This might seem strange at first, but hear me out. When at a conference—even one that does not achieve its goals particularly effectively—you enter into a mental framework. For two or three consecutive days, you immerse yourself in a particular subject matter. At a political science conference, attendees expand mental energy, for a couple days on the topic of political science. Same for a conference about feminism, or the Middle East, or anything else. At a Jewish conference, everyone there spends at least a couple days of their lives focused specifically on Judaism: On Jewish community, Jewish learning, Jewish history, Jewish culture, and of course, on Jewish food.
Now, I am very lucky to work for a Jewish organization. I spend at least 8.5 hours a day connecting to Judaism in some form. But many people struggle to allocate substantial time to Jewish engagement. There’s work, there are family commitments, perhaps some time for recreation here and there—important elements of our day-to-day existence that make any sort of intensive Jewish engagement difficult from one day to the next.
But by attending a Jewish conference, that paradigm breaks. It might normally take two full months to accrue 48 hours of “engagement” time in the Jewish community—and that’s for an actively involved Jew spending 5-6 hours a week in some sort of Jewish context. At a 72-hour Jewish conference, even after subtracting 8-hours a night for sleep (if, unlike me, you choose to indulge in some shut-eye!), you can reach that same 48-hour threshold in just three days. Even if the programming isn’t perfect, the experience is powerful. It’s transformative. Occasionally, it can be life-changing.
So, I would ask each of you reading this, please look for a Jewish conference happening near you. Don’t go just to make me happy (though I assure you, I will be, especially if I see you there)! Go because, odds are, it will help you evolve and grow as you undertake your own Jewish journey.
(And seriously, don’t you want to learn how to get your soul vibration on???)