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Change of Course for Judaism

New Class Teaches Basics of the Faith to Just About Anyone

October 14, 2000|WILLIAM LOBDELL

Mothers-in-law are tough enough to figure out, but what if you're also faced with this daunting religious gap: She's Jewish and you're a CEO (Christmas, Easter Only) Christian.

Let's kibitz (dish) for a moment, my friend. This is no time to kvetch (complain). How would you like to take a step toward mother-in-law bliss by enrolling in just one short, free course? You'll be able to kvell (boast) about your Jewish knowledge in three weeks.

A popular national program, "A Taste of Judaism: Are You Curious?" will be rolled out over the next couple of months at seven Reform temples around Orange County. The first class begins next weekend.

"A Taste of Judaism" is designed for just about anyone who has the slightest interest in Jewish religion and culture. In fact, about 40% of those who attend are not Jewish.

It's a chance for people of Jewish heritage to reconnect to their religion and for interfaith spouses to better understand husbands, wives and in-laws. It's also an opportunity for Christians to get deeper meaning from--as author Philip Yancy puts it--the Bible Jesus read and the culture that produced it.

One Brownie Girl Scouts leader even took the classes so she could be more sensitive to the Jewish girls in her troop.

"The idea came about because there are a lot of people who know absolutely nothing about Judaism," said Arlene Chernow, regional outreach director for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which developed the program. "They really do have a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes."

Organizers are expecting about 400 people to take the three two-hour classes that are free.

"A Taste of Judaism" has been taken by 25,000 people at 500 Reform synagogues across the nation, from New York to Los Angeles and Miami to Bangor, Maine, drawing crowds of up to 700. The classes have also been offered in smaller towns, including Downey, Ventura, Pomona and San Bernardino in Southern California.

"What was really wonderful is that they are exposed to many dimensions of Jewish faith," said Karen Borek, who just completed the program in Tucson. "I'm a Christian, and there's so much of value in understanding our Hebrew heritage. There's a richness there."

Until "A Taste of Judaism" was launched six years ago, the basic introduction to Judaism course offered by temples consisted of a commitment-heavy 18 classes spread over six months. The public outreach is more natural for reform temples, which practice a more liberal form of Judaism than Conservative or Orthodox synagogues.

"This is a radical departure from the past, offering classes to the general public that are open to people who are Jewish or not," Chernow said. "It was unheard of and unthought of. We had to take Judaism out of the darkness so people can feel it, touch it, experience it."

Each of the three classes is centered on a theme: spirituality, ethics and community. The idea is to give the curious a bird's-eye view of Judaism.

"It's a wonderful opportunity with no strings attached. This is an absolutely unintimidating way to come and say, 'I'd like to learn,' " said Rabbi Shelton Donnell of Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, who led the effort to bring the program to Orange County. "It's important to those people who are curious to at least in a small way experience the joys and traditions of Judaism."

There is one added benefit for the participating temples.

"About 30% want to convert after taking the class," said Caroline Orzes, volunteer administrator for the Orange County program. "Usually they're people who have had an interest in Judaism to begin with, and this just puts them over the edge."

William Lobdell is the religion reporter-editor for The Times' Orange County edition. His column appears Saturdays. His e-mail address is bill.lobdell@latimes.com.

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Whetting Jewish Appetite

"The Taste of Judaism" will take place at seven temples in Orange County: Congregation B'nai Tzedek, Congregation Shir Ha Ma'alot, Temple Bat Yahm, Temple Beth David, Temple Beth El, Temple Beth Ohr and Temple Beth Sholom.

The free programs, consisting of three two-hour classes, begin on various dates from Oct. 22 through December.

Information and reservations: (714) 771-9241.

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