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Why My Introduction to Judaism Online Class Was So Valuable

Why My Introduction to Judaism Online Class Was So Valuable

Woman wearing a blanket and working on a laptop computer while sitting on a couch

The Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Introduction to Judaism online class is an engaging, comfortable, and thought-provoking experience.

My motivation for taking the course was my long-held fascination with the story of the Jewish people. Also, my Jewish partner has a strong connection to her Jewish identity and I want to share her cultural understanding, as well as share with her a common spiritual language. Conversion is a deeply personal decision, and it was helpful to be in the open, non-coercive class discussions. During this course, I accepted a path to conversion as the correct choice for me and am excited to begin this journey.

The course was taught from the progressive perspective of the Reform Movement. I've come to find that Reform Judaism provides a thoughtful and realistic approach to theology and moral reasoning, while maintaining deep respect for tradition and community. This balance can be difficult to achieve in a fast-changing and often morally ambiguous world. Judaism's strong traditions of argumentative and literate engagement of the community and the individual, however, allow for this equilibrium.

I enjoyed two wonderful instructors for our class, Cantor Ellen Dreskin and Rabbi Natan Trief. Cantor Dreskin led us in an exploration of the Jewish calendar and holidays. She’s an engaging storyteller who loves to share the joys of Jewish life. It was a privilege to learn from her. Hanukkah and Purim took place during our studies. Some students shared their experiences of celebrating with local communities. I was lucky to attend both Shabbat Hanukkah and the Purim carnival at my local congregation, Suburban Temple - Kol Ami, in Beachwood Ohio. I didn't consider myself lucky until I remembered that some members of the class live far from any Jewish community. To live far from a congregation, yet to show intellectual and spiritual dedication to Judaism, is inspiring.

In the second trimester, we studied the Jewish lifecycle and Judaism in the home. Over time, I began to observe elements of Shabbat. In addition to some rituals, I'm drawn to the day as a time to deliberately pause, to reconnect with family and loved ones, and to experience a measure of peace and connection with the Divine.

Rabbi Trief led us in a study of Jewish history for the third trimester, with an overview of ancient Israel, the diaspora life in the Middle Ages, the birth of Zionism, the tragedy of the Holocaust, and the founding of the modern state of Israel. Current Jewish life was contextualized through the lens of surviving and thriving in the face of tragedy. I continue to reflect on both the blessings and challenges facing Jewish people today, in the Diaspora and in Israel. I'm grateful that Rabbi Trief introduced difficult topics and facilitated these necessary discussions.

The course was well organized, using video conferencing for live classes (even my occasionally unreliable connectivity managed well). Instructors could break us into small groups, in the tradition of chavruta (partnering in pairs to study).  In one instance, we divided up to discuss the law of the wayward son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), an example of an extreme ancient law from Torah. We discussed commentaries (for example, Sanhedrin 71a), which temper the severity of the Torah law and even hinted that it should never be observed.

I was surprised to learn that centuries-old Jewish commentaries on theology, law, and ethics, among other topics. are so expansive and well preserved. I noted that there may never be a single answer (or any answer) for certain ethical and spiritual questions that have been posed over time. I also learned that the minority opinion in religious debates is preserved and taught even if it is not observed, as if reading a dogmatic and unchanging specificity from the Torah or later commentaries, is itself a form of blasphemy.

I appreciate Judaism as an evolving religion, a living code of ethics and morals that meets Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) wherever and whenever they are and connects them to the Divine. The Torah and its commentaries allow for a personal glimpse of the continuous development of an ancient tribe into a functioning society and people who, despite struggles to connect and reconcile ancient beliefs with modern realities, continue to thrive in the modern day. I deeply appreciate this dynamic of the people of Israel (literally “struggling with God”) especially as it is lived by Reform Jews.

Sometimes the hour and a half duration of the class seemed inadequate. Time limits challenge any new area of study, especially the broad and deep study of Judaism and Jewish life. Overall, the course provided me a wonderful introduction to the Jewish story, a fitting preamble to my continued study as I pursue a path toward conversion. I’m excited to keep in touch with classmates through a Facebook group as we share our ongoing journeys.

Learn more about the Union for Reform Judaism's online Introduction to Judaism classes.

Tristan Hearn is a research engineer in Cleveland, OH. He earned a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Kent State University in 2012 and attends Suburban Temple - Kol Ami in Beachwood, OH.

Tristan Hearn
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