URJ Introduction to Judaism Online: Course Overview

This page provides an overview of the content for our Introduction to Judaism online course. Session topics are presented in an order that is tailored to the season in which the cohort takes place. Students should consult Pathwright, our learning management system, to review their cohort's schedule.

What is Judaism? Who are the Jewish People?

Each of us comes to class with our own background, experiences, goals, and motivations. While everyone is on their own journey, students' experiences will be enriched by engaging with the class. In this session, we get to know each other, create rules for our class, and ask initial questions. We also explore what Judaism is, who is a Jew, and who the Jewish people are. We focus on the strands of God, Torah, and Israel that, woven together, create the fabric of Reform JudaismReform Judaismיַהֲדוּת רפורמיתA denomination of Judaism that started in Germany in the mid-1800s and has flourished in the United States from the 1880s and on. Reform Judaism developed as a Jewish response to modernity and sought to answer questions of how to be both Jewish and modern in an increasingly complex world. Today, Reform Judaism is the largest denomination of affiliated Jews in North America. .

Sacred Texts

Jews are known as "The People of the Book" because of the Torah, its commentaries, and 2,000 years of interpretations. We consider the Torah's origins and authorship, as well as how it has been studied, interpreted, expanded, legalized, and turned into a way of living. We will explore an example of how we trace a Jewish commandment through the layers of texts and commentaries to see how Jewish thought and practice develops over centuries.

Jewish Beginnings: Creation, Redemption, Revelation

Three Torah concepts are the foundation to an understanding of Judaism: creation, redemption, and revelation. We learn how these three concepts are the core of the beginning of the Jewish Story. In this session, we engage in a study of the Torah narratives, including some well-known midrashMidrashמִדְרָשׁRabbinic interpretation of a passage from the Bible. Midrash falls into two categories: midrash halachah is concerned with religious practice and law, and midrash aggadah is concerned with interpreting biblical narratives and stories, , exploring the origins of these concepts, and how they remain central to Jewish observance and liturgy today.

God and Humankind

Beginning with the Torah, the Jewish people are known as B'nei Yisrael (Israel or Israelites). Yisrael means to struggle with (one's understanding of) God. Judaism does not demand a specific belief about God; there are many different Jewish theological perspectives. In this session, we will explore a variety of texts about God and investigate the ideas of "chosenness," brit (covenant), k'dushah (holiness), mitzvah (obligation) and halachah (Jewish law).

Jewish Calendar and Shabbat (The Sabbath)

The ancient Jewish calendar, based on the cycle of the moon, continues to define time for Jews around the world. Living a rich Jewish life is centered around living in Jewish time. Sanctifying  Shabbat   each week (setting Shabbat apart from the other weekdays), creates a Jewish rhythm to life. In this session, we look at the how the calendar guides Jewish life. We explore Jewish texts about Shabbat, Shabbat rituals, and their contemporary meanings.


The challenge of living as individuals or family in a mostly non-Jewish country is perhaps most dramatically felt at winter holidays. We examine the origins of the story of Hanukkah, note the additions of the rabbinic sages, and discuss how we can make this story and holiday meaningful based on the lessons of history. We will also explore Hanukkah rituals and customs.

Synagogue, Prayer, Music, & Hebrew

Throughout the ages, the synagogue has played a significant role in Jewish life, serving as a beit t'filah (house of prayer), a beit midrash (house of study), and a beit knesset (House of Assembly). In this session, we explore how each of these functions plays a role in living a rich Jewish life. We will "tour" a synagogue and look closely at details. The "fixed" prayers of the siddur (prayer book) have evolved as an expression of Jewish beliefs and experiences. For generations, Hebrew has been the main language of prayer for the Jewish people. We will explore the role of communal prayer in Jewish life, the structure of the prayer service, its language, and its music.

Jewish Lifecycle from Birth through Partnership

Jewish customs and rituals surrounding birth, education, becoming b'nei mitzvah, confirmation, and marriage are rich and varied. Jewish texts have much to say regarding raising the next generation and the nature of relationships. We will examine how marriage is considered a sacred partnership involving rites and mutual responsibility.

End of Life, Death, and Mourning

Jewish death and mourning rituals are focused on helping the mourner grieve, experience the support of the community, and, in time, find their way back to daily life. In this session, we explore Jewish funerals and the practices that guide and support the mourner and community during the grieving process. We also learn about the practices that guide us in preparing the body for burial. Finally, we explore Jewish perspectives about illness, end of life, organ donation and the afterlife.

Purim and Other Holidays

Jews often find themselves living as a minority in a larger society. Despite the challenges, the Jewish people continue to thrive. We review the customs and rituals of Purim and what the story has to teach us about identity, power, and confronting evil in the world. We also explore Rosh Chodesh, Tisha B'Av, Tu BiShvat, Lag BaOmer, and Sigd.

Jewish Values and Personal Middot (character traits)

We've studied a variety of Jewish texts and learned the significance of Jewish study. We will delve into the Jewish virtues or values (Hebrew: middot, the plural form of middah) to examine how they serve as the basis for living our lives. Whether we are making important decisions, or reflecting on how we can improve behaviors, these values serve as a framework for living life mindfully and ethically through a Jewish lens.

The High Holidays - The Days of Awe

Each year, the Days of Awe (Rosh HaShanah  and Yom Kippur) present us with opportunities to reflect on our lives, behavior and choices, and to set a new path. Asking for and granting forgiveness is a key step toward change. We explore Jewish understandings of sin, forgiveness, and new beginnings, as well as the liturgy, customs, and rituals of the Days of Awe.

Sukkot and Shavuot

Each holiday has unique rituals connecting us to its historical, religious, and agricultural significance. Celebrating the holidays inspires us to live in Jewish time and feel connected to Jews around the world and throughout time. We will learn about holiday rituals for home and synagogue.

Pesach (Passover)

Celebrating Pesach empowers each generation to pass down the Jewish story to the next generation, who adds their own voices and interpretations of the continuing saga of the Jewish people.  We focus on ritual practices and texts of the seder and festival which commemorate the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from ancient Egypt and celebrate freedom.

From Ancient Israel to the Enlightenment

We follow the Jewish journey from the ancient Near East to all parts of the world. We begin with the rise of ancient Israel, then look at the ways Judaism evolved following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, transitioning from sacrifice to synagogue. We trace the Jewish people's journey through the Middle Ages in Spain and beyond as Jews interacted, adapted, and re-imagined their communities against the backdrop of the countries where they resided. As we examine various junctures in history, we highlight the accomplishments of influential groups and individuals.

Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust

We examine the resilience of Judaism over the years, and specifically throughout the years of the Shoah (Holocaust). We consider our understanding of the origins of antisemitism, and how the Holocaust differed from anything that had ever happened before. We explore lessons drawn from the writings of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, and others. Finally, we confront the challenge of memory, exploring the observance of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and the desire to and challenge of honoring the people and communities that perished in the Holocaust.

Israel in the Jewish Story

The Jewish relationship to the land of Israel originated in biblical times and continued as a reality and aspiration from ancient times through the modern era. With the establishment of the modern State of Israel, that relationship has taken on new life both for Jewish people living there and for those living in the Diaspora. We explore the origins of Zionism and the multi-layered reality that is the modern State of Israel.

A Response to Modernity: The Birth of Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism is the outgrowth of the Enlightenment and modernity. As scholars and philosophers began to consider alternatives to traditional Jewish thinking, they developed new understandings about prayer, dress, and ritual in the modern world. Jewish belief and practice evolved as communities and individuals evaluated ways to live contemporary Jewish lives. We explore how Reform Judaism originated in Western Europe, made its way to America and Canada, and flourished to become the largest Jewish movement in North America.

The North American Jewish Experience

We learn about the beginnings of Jewish life in the United States and Canada while considering the various major streams of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist Judaism, and Reform. We discuss how North American Jews have addressed challenges to balancing their secular and religious lives. Our final class session includes time for reflection and celebration. We will also provide references and resources to aid your continued Jewish learning.

Choosing to Create a Jewish Home and Life

Judaism is lived by creating a home and lifestyle that embraces Jewish values, ethics, rituals, and celebrations. Our beliefs are reflected in the choices we make, how we live our lives, and how we create our homes. In this session, we will look at what we may find in a Jewish home, how we view Jewish food ethics, and the process one goes through when choosing Judaism.