May 17, 2007
Is a new Reform program proselytizing -- and is that a bad thing?
(Page 3 - Previous Page)Stern was conducting his "Israel/Community" class, addressing a common question for many non-Jews, this time posed by Susan Maleski, when everyone went around the room introducing themselves.
"I'm here because my boyfriend is 'Jewish,' and he said it would mean a lot to him if I learned about Judaism," said Maleski, 49. "But he doesn't believe in God. He doesn't go to temple, but he identifies very strongly with being Jewish, and I don't understand why," she said.
Most of the people in the room were part of interfaith relationships. Daisy Cain was Colombian, a Christian, and she came with her husband Steve Cain because he wants to raise their 16-month-old daughter as a Jew.
"It's time for me to figure things out," he said.
Skander Lemseffer, who was born Jewish but didn't know much about the religion, came to the class with his girlfriend Lana, who is Greek Orthodox, because he's hoping she'll convert before they have children.
A few of the people, like Robin Parkinson and Marcia Goodman, were born Jewish but wanted to find out more.
"I was not raised with any religion, but with Jewish roots, I want to hear about it," said Parkinson, a 50-something-year-old woman who studied religion in college "but not Judaism."
There were a few people who were simply interested in Judaism. Carl, an elderly gentleman who preferred not to give his last name or age, said he was originally Roman Catholic. "I have been studying the Jewish religion out of interest now."
Some, like Carl and Ingrid Vanderhope, the Australian-born Christian Jehovah's Witness, have been searching for religion their whole lives.
"I haven't been really happy in Christianity," said Vanderhope, 62, who was brought up Christian, but decided to become a Jehovah's Witness when her children were young so they would have God in their lives. Recently, she joined a group of Christian believers who follow the Sabbath and the Torah and the festivals, and that's what brought her to the "Taste of Judaism" class. She brought along her husband Maury, a reluctant, non-observant Jew who left after his bar mitzvah. "He's fed up with it, and I'm still searching," she said.
Vanderhope is a typical "Taste" attendee, according to URJ's Chernow, not because she's married to a Jew, but because her ancestors were Jews. Chernow calls them "Madeline Albright" Jews, people who find they have Jewish ancestors. For Vanderhope, it was her father, a doctor whose family survived the Holocaust who didn't want to raise his children Jewish.
"He felt we would have a better life without the pressures he went through," Vanderhope said.
But she fondly remembers her Jewish grandmother lighting Sabbath candles -- and perhaps it is this tradition and sentimentality that draw people like her to the class.
It's easy to see the appeal of "Taste of Judaism" classes, where smart, lively rabbis present the best of the religion in sound-bytes and engage interested adults in meaningful conversations about God, ethics, eschatology and the purpose of life. It's a far cry from Hebrew school classes of yesteryear, and a definite step up for many people on the mundane Britney Spears discussions of regular life.
But what will happen after the classes end?
Some of the attendees said they may go on to the AJU's 18-week Intro to Judaism class, which is a first step before conversion. Some, like Vanderhope and Daisy -- both from more fundamentalist backgrounds -- found the Reform's viewpoint too lax ("I think it's nice to be obedient to God if he went to all the trouble he did," Vanderhope said), and they might want a more spiritual and stricter form of Judaism. Others felt the Reform outlook fit in perfectly with their values and lifestyle.
"I want to know the history, the culture, and possibly some ethics," said Parkinson, who said she wouldn't be attracted to any other denomination of Judaism. And for a few people, the class awakened a latent sense of Jewish identity they didn't know they had.
"The way I was raised, it was not just a religion or faith but an identity," said Steve Cain, who admitted to cutting most of Hebrew school to play basketball in the park. "I feel like it's my responsibility to carry on not only the religious rituals but also the identity."
It's too soon to tell what will happen to the individuals who attended the "Taste of Judaism" class this spring, but consider Helen Sabo, who took the course 10 years ago.
Sabo, 44, had never thought much about how she wanted to raise her children religiously. She herself was born Jewish but had never gone to temple, and she married a non-Jewish man. But when her father died 11 years ago, the question began to bother her. Especially when her 5-year-old daughter pulled a book about the baby Jesus off the shelf at the library and asked her mother to read it to her. "I can't read her this book. This is not our story; this is not the story I want to tell our children," Sabo thought.
"I thought it was more important to give our children an understanding of our Jewish identity, but I had no idea how to do that," she says. The how came shortly after, when she went to temple with her mother for her father's yahrzeit, on the first anniversary of his death. "It was just so moving on that occasion and people were so welcoming and I wanted to find out more," she said. She took the "Taste of Judaism" class, and then joined Temple Adat Shalom. Within a year, after attending special beginner services, she ended up on the temple's board for the next seven years. She also ran outreach programming. "That was very meaningful to [share with] other people in that situation, who had no idea about Judaism that there was a really a wonderful world of a Jewish community," she said.
On May 19, Sabo's son is becoming bar mitzvah.
"It's so amazing, because if you would have said to me 11 years ago 'Are your kids going to have a bar or bat mitzvah?' I would have laughed and said, "What, are you kidding?"