When Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi Aaron Miller was in religious school, he was taught “the I and the Two H’s” — Israel, the Holocaust and the holidays.
He knew even then that there was more to Judaism than that. And since then, he’s known that past age 13, many Jews stop growing their Jewish knowledge.
The idea that there is more to Judaism than those three subjects is largely why he established the 12 Jewish Questions program at the Reform congregation in 2015.
“Some of the smartest people I’ve ever met have been members of Washington Hebrew,” Miller said. “You have brilliant people who are walking around with world expertise in whatever it might be, but with a 13-year-old version of Judaism in their brains.”
12 Jewish Questions, or “12JQ,” is a 12-week, twice-yearly series that asks some big questions, such as “Do you need to believe in God to be Jewish?” “How is Judaism linked to Israel?” and “How can I heal the world?”
Miller said the best questions are “never the easy ones.”
“On the one hand, there could be easy answers, but we never go to the easy answer,” Miller said. “We dive into thousands of years of discussion and debate the real conflict before we even land on any kind of answer. We always appreciate the power of a good question,” he added. “And a good question for Jews is often even better than a good answer.”
Still, the feeling of community is the most vital part of 12 Jewish Questions. About 150 people attend the weekly series. In answer to the question “Will there be food?” (not one of the 12), attendees are served dinner before each discussion.
Miller also suggests that participants invite each other to Shabbat dinner. He said group members have also invited each other to weddings, baby namings and other celebrations.
“So the question is not just whether you can light a fire in the Jewish soul, but whether you can find your people,” Miller said.
The questions that are asked can change from year to year, while some have been in the program for multiple years,” he said. “How can we heal the world?’ was added last year.
Miller said some people come with no religious school background, while others have taken the class multiple times. People are always asking new questions within the questions, which bring up new discussions, answers, responses and ideas, he said.
“I’m not surprised that a large spectrum of people are really interested in Judaism,” Miller said. “And it brings me so much joy to see someone coming in new, fresh and interested for the first time in decades — or for the first time in their entire life.”