When the three-session Taste of Judaism program was created in the early 1990s, leaders of the URJ – then the Union of American Hebrew Congregations – already had a learning program in place, said Rabbi Elyse Frishman, religious leader of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes.
Frishman, one of the original curriculum writers for Taste of Judaism, noted that the program was created “in the midst of our successful 16-week Introduction to Judaism course, designed for anyone who would like to have a semester’s worth of engagement in understanding Judaism more clearly.”
The course appealed to both Jews and non-Jews, she said, drawing in those who were interested in learning more about their own religion along with those exploring the possibility of conversion.
Still, Frishman said, movement leaders found that there were many people interested in learning more, “but not interested in a 16-week course.”
As a result, URJ created the new, shorter program. According to the organization, since 1994 more than 100,000 people have participated in this course. This year, the Reform group has awarded grants to congregations in 17 cities to offer it. Barnert Temple is among them.
“It’s an opportunity for Jews and non-Jews alike to explore the core principles of Judaism and discern how – if they’re Jewish – it could be more meaningful; and – if they’re not – then at the very least to gain a deeper understanding of what Judaism is,” she said. And, she added, a non-Jew involved in a relationship with a Jew can learn “how to integrate comfortably with that person’s heritage and family.”
Frishman has been teaching the course since its inception, both at Barnert and before that at the Reform Temple of Suffern, now part of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah. She has taught it three times at Barnert but “it’s been a while since we offered it here,” she said. Each session lasts about two hours and explores one of the three themes highlighted in the program: Jewish spirituality, ethics, and community values.
Recalling the creation of the program, Frishman said that at the outset, the URJ invited a handful of rabbis in the area to create sample curricula. She was one of those rabbis
“It emerged that there were a lot of different ways to approach these three topics,” she said. “It was clear that rabbis should have some leeway in designing the curriculum. Our samples were [sent out] to help others.”
The rabbi said that over the years, the makeup of the classes has varied.
“This time we have 15 people,” she said, pointing out that the classes, to be held throughout October, already have begun. “Of those, about one-third are members of the congregation, including some new members.”
“Each time, the balance has been different,” she said. “Once it was almost exclusively composed of people from outside the congregation who were looking into Judaism for personal reasons.” Some three or four later converted.
“This time we have four young couples, three of whom are in interfaith relationships and looking to understand what role Judaism should play in their lives,” Frishman said. Another couple, older and already married, is exploring the possibility of conversion for the non-Jewish spouse. Still another couple, longstanding members of the congregation, are “just interested in learning more.”
The course, she said, already inspired one participant to go further and enroll in the synagogue’s adult confirmation class.
“This is a gateway offering, a very low-barrier class,” she said. “It’s very easy to walk into, with no obligations. Just show up.”
Participants are given cards on which to write down any questions they have about Judaism, and Frishman promises them that by the end of the third session, all of the questions will have been answered. Attendees also are encouraged to write down additional questions triggered by discussions.
“They can ask anything they want,” she said, noting that she also asks participants why they chose to attend the class.
Frishman said feedback from the program has been “wonderful, if you gauge it by follow-up, that is, what choices people make later.”
She noted that one participant – “from a completely different ethnic and cultural background” – came into the class because she has Jewish friends as well as a young adult child who is seriously involved with a Jewish partner.
“If the child marries a Jew, it would be quite impactful for her family,” Frishman said. “She felt this was a perfect way to learn more about what Judaism is. She has a lot of great questions. What she gains could guide her family well.”
Frishman said the program remains valuable because “so much misunderstanding exists about the other. Sometimes, working to strengthen our personal identities, we create stereotypes and generalizations about other religions and ethnicities. The more we understand, the more we can retain our own particularism but build stronger alliances. Whatever I can do to invite people to understand Judaism more thoroughly, that can only be good for the Jewish people.”
Frishman said she also wants to help strengthen the Jewish identities of Jewish attendees. Noting the results of the recent Pew survey, showing a striking increase in intermarriage and assimilation, she said, “I don’t think it was shocking at all. We have known intuitively and anecdotally exactly what the survey revealed. For us at Barnert, it’s affirming the work we’re doing – the visioning work, from strategic planning, to education, to ritual. We have anticipated this.
“I’m excited by the survey,” she said. “It reinforces our sense of direction.”
“Who doesn’t know that 6 in 10 Jews are intermarrying?” she asked. As for assimilation, “in other periods in Jewish history, when things were going well, there was more integration into the larger society. But what does assimilation mean? It’s very important to know how to read a survey and statistics.”
The question the survey raises, she said, is “What are we doing to re-engage people religiously? Each movement will interpret that and respond differently. It’s most important to recognize that we need to reach out in different ways.”