How can I activate my Jewishness?
February 28, 2007 5:03 PM   Subscribe

How can a non-practicing (ever) Jew start practicing?

I'm a non-practicing Jew-by-birth (mother's side is the Jew-side). I come from a non-religious family, have never been to services, Jewish or otherwise. However, in recent years, I've grown very interested in the cultural aspects of Jewish life as well as, well, the religion side. I'd like to start attending temple. I'm moving out-of-state in two weeks and think it'll provide me with a nice, clean slate to begin with.

A few things are hindering me, though.

First, where should I go? I know that, as a rule, I'd be welcomed into almost any congregation without having to "convert" or anything like that. But what's right for me? Instincts say to try to find a nice, friendly reform congregation, but I know the conservative movement may provide a more "intense" (real?) experience.

Second, well... Uh, how can I go to services without feeling like a total moron? I don't know ANYTHING about this type of stuff. I'm afraid I won't know "what to do." Should I try seeking out the guidance of someone at the shul? Would speaking to the rabbi help?

... Could I even speak to the rabbi?

Help a clueless Jewess out. Any advice would be much appreciated.
posted by Meifa to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not jewish, but I know the Rabbi at the temple thats next to campus is a great guy, and will talk to anyone about anything. He's offered guidance to some of my non Jewish friends. Talking to a Rabbi would seem to me like step one.
posted by magikker at 5:14 PM on February 28, 2007

Yes, speak to a rabbi, that's what they're for.

Also, go to multiple temples. You don't have to commit as soon as you walk in the door. Talk to their rabbis and get a feel for their take on things. Ask them about the other temples.
posted by phrontist at 5:22 PM on February 28, 2007

By the way, I can't say I've ever been to a conservative shul I'd describe as "intense." So you can stop worrying about that.
posted by escabeche at 5:27 PM on February 28, 2007

The Reform temple I went to growing up had a weekly "Torah class" for adults that was targeted toward all levels (I think a lot of the students were spouses who'd married into the faith,) so you might look around for something like that. And another vote for talking to Rabbis. In my (admittedly limited) experience you can count on Rabbis to be intelligent, approachable, and fond of talking.

I can't tell from your question exactly why you've decided to get religion after growing up secular, so it's hard to say what kind of temple would be a good match. I don't know if that's because you're not sure or just having trouble explaining it, but again, a Rabbi will help you out.
posted by contraption at 5:38 PM on February 28, 2007

Many temples (and local colleges and universities) offer Torah study groups separate from services. If you feel like you don't know enough, these can be a great place to start. Being in a group, discussing aspects of Jewishness, can be a better way to introduce yourself to the fold, and in the case of a study group that isn't affiliated with a certain congregation, you can find out from other members what local synagogues are like.

Choosing a congregation may take a while. Talk to rabbis and make sure to tell them about your background and your ideas about Judaism, and (aside from your lineage) what inspires you about Jewishness. Listen to their answers carefully, and remember that you can always change congregations if you aren't satisfied with the one you pick.

You'll find that even within conservative or reform Judaism, there is a wide variety in individual congregations, and a wide variety of individual rabbis, too. Coincidence?

And even though you haven't asked for a book recommendation, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's books, Biblical Literacy and Jewish Literacy are great resources.

Last, don't worry about learning Hebrew. The alphabet is easier than ours, and the words and songs become familiar just by hearing them in your first few visits to a synagogue. And nobody will look askance if you don't know the words. If they do, it might not be the right congregation for you.

Good luck, and mazel tov.
posted by breezeway at 5:52 PM on February 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Here's how to dip your toe in-
Find the reform synagogue near your new place and check out a Friday night shabbat service. Dress a bit conservatively (it's too bad that I have to add that, but we all know how much Meifa likes tube tops). You could try a conservative temple, but there will be much less English and much more boring (huh, I guess I'm still a little bitter). If you want, talk to the rabbi after the service.
posted by spork at 6:16 PM on February 28, 2007

Lots of Reform and Conservative synagogues have "Intro to Judaism" classes, geared towards folks like you who want to learn more about their religion, potential converts, and people in relationships with Jews. This link to the Union for Reformed Judaism allows you to search for classes in your area.
posted by amro at 6:26 PM on February 28, 2007

talk to a rabbi.

for what it's worth, a conservative service isn't necessarily more intense, it's just got more hebrew and probably uses older, more eastern european-sounding melodies for sung prayers. aesthetics are important, but i wouldn't choose based solely on that. conservative and reform denominations differ on other issues, too (mostly social ones, like performing inter-religious marriages, homosexuality, the role of women, etc, but also theological ones). a rabbi will be able to explain them to you, and it is really unlikely that the rabbi will dissuade you from joining another congregation if you feel his or hers isn't a good match.

don't be afraid of the rabbi. they are authorities, but they're nice people and with a declining jewish birth rate, they'll be thrilled to see you turn up at their door.

you might also want to start at the local jcc, if there is one. they will surely have classes and may be able to help you find a congregation to start with. then just give the rabbi a call and make an appointment.

good luck!
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:32 PM on February 28, 2007

oh, and go to synagogue/temple. don't worry about not knowing the words--everyone sings so badly they'll never notice. :) also, i have about fifteen years of sunday and hebrew school under my belt, and even -i- don't know all the words. so just go, hum along, get a feel for the rhythm. you'll be fine.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:42 PM on February 28, 2007

Best answer: 1. realize that there is no reform-conservative-orthodox ladder up which the denominations become more "real" or "intense". true, that may be a common by-product of the various groups, but each denomination stands for a set of values distinct from the other. You can have more and less "intense" adherents or congregations within each.

2. your instinct of 'dipping a toe' seems right-on. do it little by little, trying one thing, and then another. i'd try to consider deciding what to adopt in several dimensions: the commandments between a person and a person (eg, charity) vs. the commandments between a person and God (eg, kosher food) -- or the individual-based laws (eg - lighting shabbat candles) vs the community oriented ones (eg - attending services). [note - im using 'laws' and 'commandments' here loosely -- some are more customs or traditions or norms]

3. read! some good books are "we jews" and "simple words" by adin steinsaltz for theology, and aj heschel's "the sabbath" if youre into the shabbat thing - though its kind of heavy. im sure amazon has some great lists for this sort of thing, and others can recommend

4. talk! absolutely talk to a rabbi! but remember - they are just people and they can be just as insensitive, thoughtless, or rude as the next person. if you have a bad experience, it need not be a reflection on the whole enterprise. try finding another rabbi to talk to. email me offline with your location and i can see if i know of any locals.

5. learn! take classes. it's a great way to meet others in your boat, and to find a judgement-free zone. new york has some great beginner's services for saturday morning services, and im sure other cities do as well.

6. incline! there's an old metaphor of spirituality as a ramp, rather than a set of stairs. that is, you can't rest on one level, stagnant -- you can either go up, or you're going down. i guess this is a sort of word of caution, then -- it's a lifelong process, not an event. even the most "committed" or "religious" are constantly trying to figure out how to become more so.

that's all i got off the top of my head. let me know if it's a start.
posted by prophetsearcher at 7:13 PM on February 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

It's worth noting that two Jewish holidays are coming up: Purim (this Saturday night) and Passover (starts April 2nd). One thing you might want to consider is attending a Passover seder (ritual dinner): many synagogues of all denominations will hold an open community seder either on the evening of April 2nd or April 3rd. I believe that the Passover seder is the most-observed Jewish ritual, and IMO is more interesting and revealing of the nature of Judaism and Jewish ritual than any service. Purim is also tons of fun (Jews are commanded to get drunk) and many synagogues will have a "purimspiel", a humorous retelling of the story of the holiday, generally in English and in the form of a hokey play.
posted by goingonit at 7:16 PM on February 28, 2007

Just show up at a temple, preferably reformed, and drink in the experience for a few times. Meet some people in the process. I love temple, I go fairly regularly, and I am Episcopalian. Go figure. If I can like it, you can too. The cultural aspect of going to temple is huge. OK, for me, not so much so, but for many it is more important that the religion itself. Friday night services are the time to go. On a Saturday, if there is a Bar Mitzvah, wear a suit. On Friday, wear a sweater. Just do it. I've joined any number of churches and now temple in my travels; one common theme is a welcoming hand to new members, guests, etc. It is quite rare to not be welcomed warmly. If that happens just find another place.
posted by caddis at 7:18 PM on February 28, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the responses, all!

My reasons for wanting to explore religion after a lifetime of being without are a bit varied, but there are some core issues. I'm interested in understanding Jewish identity. I'm fascinated by Jewish culture and history. Also, one of the central figures in my life is "quite Jewish." His devotion to the religion and way of life has intrigued me, I suppose.

Overall, though, I've long harbored this desire to see what being Jewish is like, haha. Growing up, we did observe (in our own weird way) Rosh Hashana, Passover, Hanukkah, etc. But I realize now that I know so little about what those things really are or mean. And it seems a bit hollow and rootless, I suppose.

I guess, in a strange way, this is very much about self-exploration and discovery.
posted by Meifa at 7:40 PM on February 28, 2007

Many communities have Jewish Community Centers that are non-denominational, have good "Intro to Judaism" classes and social gatherings to meet other Jewish people in non-religious settings. That might be a nice way for you to meet people and talk about what you're looking for in a religious environment, and then those people can help steer you to a synagogue or different kind of prayer community that might be right for you.
posted by judith at 8:13 PM on February 28, 2007

On the (Chassidic) Orthodox side, the Lubavitcher community is known for its outreach to unaffiliated Jews. (And also for a faction within the group which belives their late Rebbe is the Messiah).

To the point where in places like New York City they stand outside subway stations or on streetcorners asking passesby whether they are Jewish and offering to teach them to put on teffilin (men) or light Sabbath Candles (women).

Roughly, this comes from their belief that getting Jews to carry out the commandements speeds up the arrival of the Messiah.

They have centers, reffered to as Chabad Houses, all around the world. See:
posted by Jahaza at 11:59 PM on February 28, 2007

I guess, in a strange way, this is very much about self-exploration and discovery.

This is life, enjoy.
posted by caddis at 12:22 AM on March 1, 2007

I would also consider a "reconstructionist" synagogue if you're looking (and you're in a city big enough or well "left" enough to have one). Reconstructionism is the most recent denomination in the Jewish faith. I dig on their egalitarianism, and on their intellectual engagement, as well as their socially and politically active politics and members.

Oh, and if you're under 26, you can take your newfound exploration of Judaism all the way to Israel. For free. You can check that out here. The trips are free, fun, and will help you get at least a taste of Jewish history, culture, Israeli food, etc., etc. Judaism looks (and feels) way different in the homeland than it does in the diaspora. I'm not necessarily recommending that you up and go on a birthright trip right away, but, since the time is ticking (or might already be expired for you, dunno), I thought I would let you know sooner rather than later so that you can think about it.
posted by zpousman at 6:34 AM on March 1, 2007

Doh - bad linky! Try this.
posted by zpousman at 6:37 AM on March 1, 2007

I work for a Jewish woman. She is pretty conservative, keeps a kosher home, does not work on Saturday. Because my boyfriend's mother is Jewish (and thus he is also a "not activated" Jew) my boss offered me this advice: "Do not let him go to a Chabat House."

Her reasoning, Jews who keep a kosher home are in the extreme minority here in America. She does not feel that she is any more or better a Jew because she keeps a kosher home, she just feels that it is right for her. Chabat House(s) guide people vigorously into more and more observant lifestyles, and if you decide you've come to a place where you are comfortable with your spiritual life, and it's not as far as Chabat House wants you to go, there is a lot of pressure. She has seen several people stop keeping Kosher, and walk away from Judaism altogether.

So, Shana says, start very liberal. If you want more, go more conservative, but don't start at the most conservative Shul in town. (Unless there is only one!)

Now, if Nick wants to go to Chabat House, that's fine with me, because I'm under no obligation to convert. But Chabat House might suggest that he needs to leave me if I won't convert. That would suck. A lot.
posted by bilabial at 1:47 PM on March 1, 2007

If you are between 18-26 you might also want to visit Israel on a free program called Birthright. It's for all young Jewish adults who have never been to Israel on a peer-group trip, and who are interested in connecting in some way with their Jewishness. You can find out more here:
posted by schoenbc at 1:47 PM on March 1, 2007

I'm fascinated by Jewish culture and history.

You might want to also keep in mind that you can enjoy a fascination with your birth culture/ethnicity/history without buying into the specific religious beliefs of any Jewish sect, reform or otherwise. There are many people who have been born Jewish, been part of and influenced by their Jewish history, and enjoyed various cultural and ethnic aspects of Judaism (food, family, etc) while not sharing any Jewish theological beliefs. The philosopher Spinoza would certainly qualify, as might any number of Jewish political and literary thinkers (many of whom were extremely active in civil rights and labor struggles, among other things) over the last couple of hundred years.
posted by mediareport at 6:59 PM on March 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think it's great that you're doing this! I did something similar, but around age 16.

My recommendations: what are you interested in? Judaism has such a rich tradition, that no matter what you're into, there's almost sure to be a Jewish angle. For me, it was feminism, and my early exposure to both Jewish and feminist thought came from Jewish feminist writers. But whatever you're into, if it's music, or film, or law, or history, etc, exploring the Jewish angle could be very rewarding and a good way to get started.

A good book to know about every day traditional practice is How to Run a Jewish Household, by Blu Greenberg. Pretty good background, and makes things less foreign and random, and you could pick out from there things you'd like to try.

Re- synagogue, no matter what synagogue you go to, they can be big anonymous places if you don't have some way in. People have already suggested learning groups, those are great because it gives you some people to know and something to talk about them with, and people to say hi to when you go to services. Also, don't worry about joining a synagogue, take your time, get to know people, experiment with many places. There's no requirement to be a member.

A lot of people have given great ideas on this thread.

Good luck, enjoy!!
posted by Salamandrous at 7:09 PM on March 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

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