Judaism 101: everything we need to know


What is Jewish literacy? What does it mean to be Jewishly literate? Who is an educated Jew?

Paula Hyman, professor of modern Jewish history at Yale University, wrote in an issue of Sh’ma, “There has been no consensus on the issue of ‘Who is an educated Jew?’ for more than 200 years.”

Clearly, our definitions have changed over the centuries. But where are we today? What must we know to function as literate Jews?

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his introduction to “Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History,” observes, “At a time when Jewish life in the United States is flourishing, Jewish ignorance is, too.”

He goes on to say that while large numbers of Jews of all ages are seeking Jewish involvement, in many cases, they are secretly “Jewishly illiterate.”

Modern Jews, Telushkin writes, are either vaguely familiar with or completely unaware of the most basic terms and significant facts about Jewish life and Jewish history.

The traditional definition of literacy is the ability to use language – to read, write, listen and speak. In modern contexts, the word means reading and writing on a level adequate for written communication and generally a level that enables one to successfully function at certain levels of a society.

For our purpose, the phrase “successfully function at certain levels of a society” is where we must begin. What do we need to know to function in or create a Jewish home, to function in the synagogue, to function in Jewish communal life and to function in the world as a knowledgeable Jew? What should we know, feel and be able to do to be considered a literate Jew?

Jewish educators wrestle with these questions on a regular basis. Whether working in a congregation, in a day school or in a graduate program in Jewish education, the questions are the same, although the answers may vary greatly from setting to setting.

Let’s begin with some basic categories: God, Torah, Jewish nation, Israel, holidays, life cycle and deeds. These categories, once briefly explored, will form the basis on which most Jewish learning, leading to Jewish literacy, is built.

  • God: It is in this category where ideas and concepts about Jewish belief are explored. Understanding God and spirituality is a process with which Jews must wrestle. Discussion encompasses questions such as: What is the nature of God? What is Judaism? What do Jews believe?
  • Torah: This category can be expanded to focus on the “words” – the ideas and concepts – of Jewish life. It includes not only the Hebrew alphabet and Hebrew language, common expressions and greetings, Jewish names and names for God, but it also includes: What is the Torah? What are Torah readings? What is in the Bible? What are prayers and blessings? What is Jewish liturgy? What are the basic Jewish texts? What is biblical history and modern Jewish history?
  • Jewish nation: Who is a Jew? How many Jews are there in the world? What are the movements in Judaism? Who are Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Oriental and Ethiopian Jews? What is “Jewish” food? Who are the patriarchs and matriarchs? Who are the prophets, the sages and the scholars of the Jewish people?
  • Israel: Why is Israel, the spiritual homeland of the Jewish people, important to all Jews? What is the difference between the Land of Israel and the State of Israel? Who lives in Israel?
  • Holidays: This area begins with a discussion of the Jewish calendar. How is the Jewish calendar the same and different from the secular calendar? What is Rosh Chodesh? What do we need to know about Shabbat and religious holidays? What is Yom HaShoah? What is Yom Ha’atzmaut? Which holidays are celebrated at home? Which are celebrated in the synagogue? What is the history of the synagogue?
  • Life cycle: What are the rituals and traditions that accompany each of the stages of the life cycle? Birth, naming and the first month of life are times of beginnings and celebrations. Bar and bat mitzvah and confirmation are milestones in a child’s religious education. Marriage begins a new Jewish home and family. Death and mourning have special customs to help the family and bring the community together. What does Judaism say about the afterlife?
  • Deeds: Ethics and ethical behavior are important Jewish values. How are we to behave toward Jews and non-Jews? What is tzedakah? What is meant by gemilut chasadim? What are the Ten Commandments? What does Judaism expect of us? How should we speak about others? What is lashon hara? How should we treat animals?

Judaism places great emphasis on caring for one another and the world around us. Jewish literacy requires that we be able to function successfully as knowledgeable Jews. If we accept that Jewish study is a lifelong pursuit, we will learn what we should know, feel and be able to do at each stage of our lives.

Jo Kay is director of education of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City and vice president of educational resources for the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.

Education in the synagogue should aim for enhanced Jewish living


For professors in a university’s Judaic studies program, Jewish literacy appears to be a straightforward proposition. They can insist on prerequisites, delineate academic standards, articulate a curriculum, impose the extrinsic motivation of grades and design objective tests of students’ achievements. That is because their program is one of Judaic studies, as opposed to Jewish education, and their goal is to impart information, rather than influence behavior.

For synagogue rabbis, Jewish literacy is much more of a moving target. Jewish education in the synagogue aims for enhanced Jewish living, as opposed to striving simply for increased Jewish knowledge. It addresses the mind, heart and soul. It addresses children, adults and families – people at every stage of life, with varied backgrounds and divergent interests.

Nonetheless, it is possible, even desirable, for a synagogue to design and promote a systematic program of Jewish education and enculturation that moves its members toward Jewish literacy. For some Jews, it is sufficient motivation to know that we are commanded to engage in study as a lifelong endeavor – the mitzvah of Talmud Torah.

For other Jews, the synagogue needs to help them understand that active Jewish living will enhance their lives, that a vibrant Jewish community gives them a context for celebrating life’s joys and coping with its challenges, that Jewish texts and rituals give them a vocabulary for expressing the deepest yearnings of their souls and that learning for its own sake can be profoundly rewarding. Often, the greatest barrier for individuals is a lack of confidence and competence. A program that moves its members toward Jewish literacy fills this gap.

There are some Jews who will eagerly respond to such a program and have the time and inspiration to immerse themselves in regular, serious study. The synagogue is obligated to respond by providing opportunities for learning.

But most synagogue members are not prepared to study regularly. The synagogue must respond to this population, as well, by offering introductory programs and then helping it progress beyond the basic classes.

Synagogue membership that is diverse in background, knowledge, experience and interest also challenges synagogue leadership to be teachers of Judaism. That teaching must be guided by the conviction that Jewish literacy is not simply about book learning but also Jewish heritage and life.

To be Jewishly literate, a person need not know everything. Rather, he or she must be familiar with the basic aspects of the religion: the rhythms and cycles of the Jewish year; sacred texts; Jewish history, ethics and values, and the obligations and opportunities of being a Jew. Also, a person needs to know Hebrew – not necessarily to be fluent but at least conversant with the vocabulary of Jewish life.

Jewish literacy is a goal to be sought. Synagogues need to create communities of learning wherein members come to understand that it isn’t so much the attainment of that goal that is meaningful as the journey to get there. l

Rabbi Michael Weinberg is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Skokie, Ill., and a past president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.

Promoting Jewish Learning


On a recent Friday afternoon, the chapel bells at Duke University chimed “Shalom Aleichem” as about 1,300 educators gathered for the 31st annual conference of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE).

Billed as “Jewish Literacy: A Learned Community and a Community of Learners,” CAJE 31 was a raw, messy, creative affair, with 20 sessions held every hour for five days on such wide-reaching topics as “God Shopping,” “The Jews of Sing-Sing,” “Assessing Our Relationship to Israel” and “Jews as Global Citizens.” Many of the sessions focused on teaching methodology, text-based learning and creative approaches to Judaism. Participants also met for in-depth discussions on every Jewish theme imaginable, all with the goal of energizing teachers and students for the coming year.

Teachers, storytellers, dancers, rabbis and teenagers training for future leadership positions ran through the southern heat across the sprawling campus looking for classrooms, some of which were buried two floors underground. They also browsed through Duke’s Bryan Center and an array of vendors displaying items such as teaching materials, custom-made crossword puzzles, jewelry and handmade Jewish arts and crafts.

Most of the sessions and evening keynote speeches addressed the issue of Jewish literacy, focusing on how being Jewishly literate means familiarity not just with texts, a bar mitzvah portion, Israeli history or Jewish dance, but with a stew of all those elements and much more.

In a session on adult learners led by Betsy Dolgin Katz, North American director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, one participant said, “Something that changed my life was learning to read Torah at age 40.”

The session also focused on how much emphasis is placed on children’s preparation for b’nei mitzvah and becoming full participants in Jewish life, while parents might not have had an equivalent education and may feel left behind.

Cherie Koller-Fox, a founder of CAJE, held a session on the challenges young teachers face when deciding whether or not to enter the field of Jewish education at all. She encouraged them to assert themselves when asking for the salaries and support they would need to make a career in Jewish education work for them, and urged them to take the reins of CAJE for a new generation.

“CAJE looks old and decrepit, but it needs to be yours,” she told them. “You desperately need it, but it desperately needs you.”

A special session was held each night where teachers and community leaders discussed how to teach the war in Lebanon in the upcoming school year and shared personal feelings about Israel. Some educators stressed the importance of promoting a connection between children and Israel. One participant said, “They should identify with Israel like it’s their own home being bombed, because it is their home being bombed.” Another participant grew pensive over the thought that peace in the Middle East would truly not be achieved in his lifetime.

A few teachers worried that children would grow up with negative impressions of Israel due to media coverage or bias, while others expressed happiness that some of the myths about Israel as only a heroic nation might dissipate.

The war in Lebanon aside, some educators, especially from small communities, were happy to be surrounded by so many fellow travelers.

Ellen Ben-Naim, a teacher at Los Alamos Jewish Center in New Mexico that draws much of its congregation from the nearby research laboratory, said that in her school of 20 students, 7,000 feet up a mountain, even the rabbi is also a full-time physicist.

“This is like a mecca for me. Well, maybe that’s not the right word,” she said, adding that the diversity of Jewish life exhibited at CAJE astounded her. Back home, she said, “there is only one tent in town for everybody.”

Lynne Diwinsky, a teacher at the New City Jewish Center in New City, N.Y., enjoyed CAJE as a prelude to the school year.

“I see [CAJE] as a renewal. It happens right before Rosh Hashanah to get ready for the coming year,” she said. “I love the interchange with other professionals.”

Eliot Spack, CAJE’s outgoing executive director, said, “CAJE provides a recharging of their batteries,” referring to the educators who attend.

He called the conference “a celebration of Jewish teaching: “CAJE has inspired people not in a manipulative or proselytizing way, but it’s helped people come to grips with their own Judaism.”

Carolyn Starman Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council and longtime CAJE-goer, said that making connections and being able to access new materials is important for educators.

“West of the Hudson River, where are people going to get this plethora of books and materials?” she asked.

Avraham Infeld, outgoing president of Hillel, delivered a fiery keynote address on the topic of Jewish identity. He said out of five legs of Judaism — memory, family, Sinai, the people and land of Israel and the Hebrew language — each Jew should learn three. That way, everyone would have at least one Jewish connection in common.

Infeld also mentioned a phrase his late father used to repeat that subtly echoed the conference’s theme: “A Jew has to know more today than he did yesterday.”

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.

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