In the Beginning: Temple Shalom starts the year with Introduction to Judaism

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Beginning next month, Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase will host the Union for Reform Judaism’s regional Introduction to Judaism course. Between Sept. 27 and Jan. 24, 2024, members of area Reform congregations and other community members will take a journey to understand Jewish life.

Students of Temple Shalom’s Intro to Judaism class (Courtesy of Dani Stoller)

The course, designed as an in-depth look at Judaism through a Reform lens, will be taught by Rabbi JoHanna Potts, who has taught and led Torah study at Temple Shalom for 27 years.

Potts has taught the course four times. She said Introduction to Judaism draws a variety of students — all coming from different backgrounds and for different reasons.

“This class has included people who want to revisit their Jewish education as adults, people who are Jewish adjacent, people who are considering becoming Jewish and couples who take the class together as part of their Jewish journey,” she said.

Jennifer Tyler, a former student, signed up for the class with her husband. Since taking the class together, her husband has begun the process of conversion.

“Our class was full of deeply meaningful discussions about various aspects of Judaism, but also life more generally amongst my classmates – both Jewish participants and participants from other faith backgrounds,” Tyler said.

Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase (Courtesy of Dani Stoller)

The class is held both in person and on Zoom. Potts recalled a student last year from South America who attended via Zoom.

“That’s how dedicated people are to being in class,” Potts said.

Despite the class being held on Zoom during the pandemic, students still formed strong bonds, Potts said. Before COVID, students took turns bringing snacks to class. When that wasn’t possible, they took turns sharing their favorite snack recipes over Zoom. And when the pandemic restrictions eased, the class met in person for an outdoor potluck.

“Most of the people from our class still get together about once a month to have a potluck and catch up,” said Lesley Wilcox, who took the class last fall and is on the path to conversion.

Every semester, students are excited to learn, discuss and share, according to Potts. The class discusses Jewish beliefs, holiday practice, how to create a Jewish home and “very cursorily” covers Jewish history and texts.

Every week, students present a d’var Torah, a brief commentary on that week’s portion. They also complete assigned readings from several books that accompany the course. One of these books, “Honoring Tradition, Embracing Modernity,” is a Reform movement-sponsored reader for the course.

“In some ways it sums up where the Reform movement is at the present — trying to keep a healthy balance while looking forward,” Potts said.

In class, students complete their assigned reading and keep a journal, led by prompt questions. This aspect of the class is vital, according to Potts, because being reflective, wrestling with the text and asking questions are important Jewish values.

“The group comes together as a true community of learners. They’re extremely supportive and encouraging of each other’s engagement and learning. It’s just wonderful to see that happen,” Potts said.

Rabbi JoHanna Potts (Courtesy)

Each student has a clergy sponsor as a requirement to participate in the class. According to Potts, students share their journaling, pursue class concepts in greater depth and plan subsequent learning with their sponsors.

“I like to joke that I have the best job in the Jewish community,” Potts said. “I get to encounter people that are excited about Judaism.”

Some funding to URJ for the program comes from the Silver Spring-based nonprofit National Center to Encourage Judaism.

A parallel class will be offered by Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston, in person and online.

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