What Congregations Have Learned from Shifting Intro and Taste Programs Online

October 27, 2020Rabbi Miriam Wajnberg

Throughout the past six+ months, congregations, clergy, and educators have learned a great deal about building Jewish community online. From the earliest technical learnings of those first weeks in March (“How do I share my screen?”) to more advanced technical learnings (“Have you heard of Mentimeter?”), we’ve now moved into a stage of deeper adaptive learnings that will shape how congregations engage learners through Introduction to Judaism and A Taste of Judaism® long after we’ve resumed gathering in-person.

1. Intro to Judaism is an apt opportunity for “life-to-text.”

In their February 2020 article “5 Shifts Congregations Need to Make to Keep Up with the Changing Times,” Rabbi Esther Lederman and Amy Asin encouraged congregations to “embrace life-to-text approaches that engage people by starting with their lives.” Offering Intro to Judaism and A Taste of Judaism® programs over these tumultuous months gave faculty and congregations an invaluable opportunity to structure their classes from a “life-to-text” perspective.

The weekly check-in on how students were doing became essential and led to opportunities to explore Jewish spiritual practices in response to isolation, fear, political unrest, and more. This approach allowed students to see their lives and their concerns reflected in the curriculum and in Judaism.

2. Online learning is not a barrier to relationship-building.

At the start of the pandemic, many faculty questioned whether they would be able to build the kind of classroom community online that they can easily foster in person. While our online lives lack the casual connections and schmoozing that we usually have at the start, break times, and end of classes, Intro and Taste programs have creatively included relational time in other ways.

Linda Levin, who oversees the Intro to Judaism class co-sponsored by Florida congregations Temple Judea, Temple Beth Am, Temple Beth Sholom, Temple Israel of Greater Miami, and Temple Sinai of North Dade, always has a one-on-one conversation with each registered participant before the start of the class. This fall, she took those conversations to a new depth, getting to know students and what was bringing them to the class. The impact of these conversations was evident immediately, with increased attendance and retention of students throughout the first weeks of the semester.

Relationships can also be built in an online setting using the chat box, intentional go-rounds, incorporating breakout rooms, and faculty remaining “in the room” on Zoom after class ends to speak with lingering students, just as they might in person.

3. There ways to make technology work for our needs.

It’s far too easy to be seduced by fun features in Zoom, without questioning whether they serve our educational goals. Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner, the faculty for City Shul of Toronto’s Taste of Judaism® program, found that the PowerPoint and annotation activities in the Taste faculty guide didn’t match his teaching style, so he chose to teach in a different way. When they don’t work for our personal teaching styles or for participants’ learning needs, fancy technological gimmicks are just that – gimmicks.

On the flip side, when Rabbi Max Chaiken realized that he had more participants for Congregation Kol Ami of West Hollywood’s Taste of Judaism® program than could reasonably have a conversation together, he enlisted the help of another faculty member and divided the group into breakout rooms. He used Zoom’s available features to solve a problem he had, rather than to create complications.

4. We can create a powerful sense of belonging.

In the article mentioned earlier, Amy Asin and Rabbi Esther Lederman invited congregations to “worry less about affiliation and membership; instead, move toward a culture of belonging.” Online learning has enabled both congregations and students to expand the geographic and physical accessibility of their programming.

A participant in a Philadelphia-area Intro to Judaism class can invite their adult child in another state to join them in class. Congregations can now even post their adult learning classes that are open to all on ReformJudaism.org, creating opportunities for further learning and engagement. (Use this form to post your class.)

Intro to Judaism and A Taste of Judaism® are powerful on-ramps into sacred community, and the breakdown of geographic barriers creates amazing opportunities to build a sense of belonging that transcends buildings. Our new URJ Intro x OneTable partnership brings it to a new level, by empowering congregations and participants to host online Shabbat dinners as an additional community-building and learning opportunity.

Amidst the urgent pastoral and practical needs of this moment, congregations have committed to the crucial engagement work of Intro to Judaism and A Taste of Judaism®, work that is necessary now more than ever.

If your congregation would like to learn more about offering one of these programs this year, please email us. If your program is already planned, please use this form to let us know the details so we can support you.

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