J-school is in session! Last night, I stepped way out of my comfort zone and into a synagogue. Let’s just say it’s the first time I did that in a month (or several) of Shabbats. A gefilte fish out of water, if you will.

What could bring me into a religious institution more willingly than a favorite cousin’s bar mitzvah? The first of Rabbi Eli Yoggev’s Judaism for Beginners classes at Beth Tfiloh Congregation on Nov. 19.

Jewish quotes

Look, Ma, a handout! (Photo by Amanda Krotki, Jmore)

When I got to the classroom, binders and handouts beckoned to me! I’m a sucker for school supplies, so that helped calm my nerves. The warm and welcoming greeting I received from Rabbi Yoggev didn’t hurt, either. The only thing that would have made it even better would have been if there was something to nosh on.

We started off with the usual first day of school housekeeping items— introductions all around and explanations of what each of us is hoping to get out of the class. There were approximately 20 students present — Jews and non-Jews, 70-year-olds and 30-year-olds, men and women. There were those in the process of converting, expectant fathers, grandparents whose grandchildren attend Beth Tfiloh and they want to be able to know more than them, married couples taking the journey together and seniors who had never had a formal religious upbringing and wanted to give it a shot.

As we went around the room, I heard such reasoning as “make it kosher,” “considering conversion,” “can always learn something new,” “would one day like to be more than an honorary Jew,” “came to say Kaddish for my mother and realized I didn’t know anything” and — the winning response —“I thought I taught [my daughter] everything and I found out I don’t know anything.”

Of course, we weren’t sitting there for more than 10 minutes before someone made the first bris joke. Oy. Or, Ow.

Rabbi Eli Yoggev

Rabbi Eli Yoggev drops some Jewish knowledge. (Photo by Amanda Krotki, Jmore)

For his part, Rabbi Yoggev, also characterized himself as a “beginner … of 20 years. I had to kind of find my own way,” he said. He stressed that he owns his “Orthodox perspective.” So, right away, I can tell this isn’t going to be the hippie-style, Kumbaya, free-flow Judaism with which I have at least a passing familiarity.

I mean, maybe I should be in remedial Judaism. Everyone in the room seemed to know what the Shema was — even the guy named Chris (I really liked Chris. I’m just pointing out that he’s likely not the product of Jewish background with a name like Chris.). At what point should I admit I had no idea what they were talking about? The best I could come up with for a definition for the sacred prayer was a sort of “God’s got you.”

Before registering for the course, I had some pre-conceived burning questions I hoped to finally get to the bottom of: How do I make a proper challah? Why can’t I turn the lights on/off Friday night? From which side am I supposed to light the menorah? Do mezuzahs keep the evil spirits away?

What I ended up learning — at least in the first session — were these three axioms:

  1. Judaism is not all or nothing.
  2. Judaism is relevant today.
  3. Judaism has something for everyone.

At one point, Beth Tfiloh’s Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg popped in to look at all of us and announce that we are the future of Judaism. No pressure, though.

A part of Rabbi Yoggev’s lecture really resonated with me. He stressed that Judaism has something to say on every topic. Just like my Aunt Judy, bam! (Sorry, Aunt Judy). He said there’s a take on everything: Thanksgiving, in vitro fertilization, politics, immigration, abortion, you name it. I love that. There’s nothing more powerful than the ability to have educated, thoughtful debate on anything. Also, it makes you really popular at cocktail parties.

My biggest takeaway of the night was that there are all kinds of people out there who are actually interested in learning about and taking part in something I’ve taken for granted my entire life. But, hey, I’m here now. And as Rabbi Yoggev says, “Everybody walks to Beth Tfiloh. Some from their homes. Some from the parking lot.”

I’m not quite ready to drink the Manischewitz, but I got through the door.

Next up: Foundations of Jewish Belief

Here’s the class schedule:

Basics — Nov. 19: What You Need to Know About Judaism, Nov. 26: Foundations of Jewish Belief, Dec. 3: Jewish History 101

Jewish Life and Spirituality — Dec. 10: Daily Jewish Living, Dec. 17: Life Cycle Events, Dec. 24: Prayer, Jan. 7: Jewish Spirituality

Practical Judaism — Jan. 14: Introduction to Jewish Law and Custom, Jan. 21: Shabbat, Jan. 28: Festivals

Judaism for Today — Feb. 4: Hot Button Issues, Feb. 11: “Ask the Rabbi” Session

For more information, contact eyoggev@btfiloh.org.