[Photo by Linda Burnett]
This Mixed and Matched article was originally published in the J weekly in August 2017.
I grew up in an interfaith family that practiced no religion. As an adult I have joined a synagogue and am trying to learn what I missed out on. I have so many questions. Is it proper to ask the rabbi or other members my questions? I feel like a pest. How can I learn without annoying my fellow shul members? I have enrolled my children in Hebrew school, but they are learning at a much younger level than I need. — Confused and Searching
Dear Confused: Congratulations on having the guts to do what is right for you and pursuing the education you wish you’d been given. One thing you may have learned, or will learn soon, is that Judaism is a tradition of questioning. The more questions you ask, the better Jew you are! However, you seem to be saying that your questions feel awkward and possibly unsophisticated. It is always right to ask your rabbi what you’d like to know. You are never taking up too much time and attention when you are trying to learn.
You will learn a lot as you follow along with your children’s educations. However, you are indeed at a more adult level of learning and no doubt want to go at a faster pace. Here are some suggestions for moving your learning along:
Meet with your rabbi. Share your desire. Ask if they can give you some time, maybe once every couple of weeks, to meet and discuss what you’re learning and what is baffling to you. Perhaps they can recommend some good books, websites or videos to review.
Take a basic Judaism class. Lots of born-and-raised Jews who learned as children in Hebrew school decide to take a basic Judaism class as adults. Don’t worry that others will know more than you do. Some will; some won’t. You will have the added benefit of being able to connect with others who are interested in the same things you are. Strike up conversations, ask people out for coffee, discuss your reading assignments, invite your new friends over for Shabbat dinner. Just surrounding yourself with a Jewish circle will enhance your exposure to Judaism and increase your knowledge.
Join your synagogue’s Torah study. You’ll be surrounded by your peers, and what could be better? You’ll become familiar with the ways in which Jews study, examine Torah and debate Jewish laws and traditions.
Read books. Ask your rabbi for some suggestions. Also, browse through your synagogue’s library. Pick up anything that interests you. You can see a list of basic Judaism books that are recommended for beginners here. The ones marked with an asterisk are especially good for beginners.
Sign up for some Jewish email lists. Receive something every day or week in your inbox. Here are a few good learning tools: MyJewishLearning.com, jewfaq.org, reformjudaism.org, uscj.org and ou.org. Ask your rabbi for other suggestions.
Identify good mentors. You may have noticed that some of your fellow synagogue members really enjoy answering your questions. There are just some people who are born sharers. They love learning and they love teaching and they love discussing the topics about which they are passionate.
Look around you. Who in your circle would you identify in this way? Pick a couple of them. Take them out for coffee — or just follow them to the parking lot after a shul activity — and tell them you are working hard on learning about Judaism. Tell them you’ve found them easy to talk to and responsive to your questions. Thank them. Then ask if they might be willing to help you advance your learning.
Would they be willing to be your sounding board? Could you email or call them with questions that arise? Since you can’t foresee when and what you’ll need answers for, ask if they’ll be your mentors. You may also want to empower these people to tell you when you’ve made a mistake — privately, of course. Just say, “If I use the wrong term or mispronounce something, would you let me know quietly that I’ve made the error and give me the correct version?” Chances are they will be tremendously flattered.
Best of luck. You are off to a good start!