Ask Rabbi Ari
Send your questions to Rabbi Ari Vernon. Click here to fill out an anonymous form.
Back to Judaism
Dear Rabbi Ari,
My mother is Jewish yet is non-practicing. So, I have very little knowledge of the faith and the community. I would like to get involved and learn about my heritage. What do you recommend? What the best way to learn about practiced customs and holidays?
– Looking to Return
Dear Looking to Return,
Your question is one I have received several times. Sometimes it’s from people like you who by birth are unquestionably Jewish, but did not have the benefit of a Jewish upbringing. Others are of questionable Jewish status and looking to embrace their Jewishness. When Jews want to return to Judaism, it can be difficult, and I applaud your courage in asking the question and taking the first step.
Your situation isn’t even that much different from many people who were actively raised Jewishly, but who still reach adulthood feeling under-educated about Judaism lacking the basic skills to participate in Jewish life. There are two areas of learning to undertake in embracing Judaism – learning the history and background information of Judaism and acquiring the skills to participate in Jewish community.
As you could probably figure out, skills are acquired through practice. It’s not much different from riding a bike or hitting a baseball. You have to learn how to do it and practice it until you get comfortable. The biggest skill to acquire is Hebrew reading. While understanding Hebrew would be great, if you can read all of the words in the prayer book, you won’t feel self-conscious about participating in services. Many of the congregations in our community offer beginning Hebrew classes, as does the Central Agency for Jewish Education (CAJE). CAJE also runs a Hebrew Reading Marathon in the Fall that is specifically designed for learning to read Hebrew to participate in services. Some local colleges and universities also offer Hebrew classes. Wherever you end up deciding to learn Hebrew, just make sure there is a strong focus on reading skills.
Learning about Judaism is also pretty easy for someone who is willing to make a little effort. Again, many congregations and local organizations offer classes on a variety of topics. Some are one-time classes, and others are courses that run for semesters or years. It’s up to you to determine the level of commitment you want to make. An “Introduction to Judaism” type of class would probably be best for starting out. The local Reform congregations collaboratively offer a four-part course through the offices of the Union for Reform Judaism – Midwest Council. All of the organizations and congregations can be found through jewishinstlouis.org in the Community Directory.
Finally, I would recommend becoming a regular at a congregation. Every Jew needs a spiritual home and community, and it will serve you well to find a congregation where you feel welcomed and comfortable as you learn and practice Judaism. You’ll also benefit from developing a relationship with a rabbi who can provide guidance on this journey of exploration.