Update: Readers have expressed interest in both "A Taste of Judaism" and more comprehensive programs about Judaism. Congregation Kol Ami will host an expanded program beginning Aug. 31. "Introduction to Judaism" is a 13-week course for the curious, seekers, interfaith couples with children and is open to LGBTQ individuals and families.
Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis had a small group gathered for the second session of “A Taste of Judaism” offered this summer through Congregation Kol Ami, Denton County’s sole synagogue.
The group was all women. A few seekers who said they might convert to Judaism sat in the worship space, along with a woman who simply wanted to learn more about the faith and a Muslim woman who said she missed her interfaith women’s group in New York that brought Jewish and Muslim women together for dialog and friendship.
Rabbi Geoff made it clear: “A Taste of Judaism” isn’t meant to convert people to the faith.
“Judaism isn’t a conversionary faith,” he told them. “This program was started so that Jewish communities could put themselves into context with and for the non-Jewish communities around them.”
Dennis said the Flower Mound congregation has been offering the class every three or four years for the last two decades. It just so happens that in 2021, Jews in America are facing a surge of antisemitism. The suspicion and hostility feel as if they’re coming from all over the ideological spectrum, Dennis said.
“I’ll never miss an opportunity to give people a look at Jews and what they are doing,” Dennis said. “This program isn’t new, but it’s one of those programs that can respond to just about any moment we find ourselves in as Jews. It’s a chance to see and discuss what is going on.”
What’s going on for Jews in North America? The QAnon conspiracy theory and online community has revived centuries-old tales and prejudices about Jews, lone wolf assailants have been radicalized by far-right online forums, and young progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives have drawn fire for sentiments that critics say cross the line from mere criticism of Israel into antisemitism.
“There is sometimes-deadly antisemitism coming from the right, and some anti-Israeli sentiment on the left that can kind of feed into a broader antisemitism,” Dennis said. “We see it coming from different places.”
One answer to the problem?
Hospitality. “A Taste of Judaism” is mostly a three-session survey of the faith, covering spirituality, ethics and community. But it’s served with a side of Jewish treats. Mostly sweets.
The Union of Reform Judaism, a religious association for North American Reform Jews, proposed the outreach program more than 20 years ago, when Rabbi Dennis was a rabbinical student.
“I can say that I was one of the 20-some-odd pilot instructors who determined what it looks like,” he said. “There is a basic blueprint that comes out of the Union for Reform Judaism. But every rabbi probably has their own take on it. You’re never going to get rabbis to stick to a script.”
The sessions are about two hours long, and there’s no homework or tests. Dennis told the participants that Jews are part of a broad faith, from Orthodox Judaism to Reform Judaism, which includes Congregation Kol Ami. Judaism is a faith of “deeds, not creeds,” Dennis said, and though the faith asks Jews to believe in the existence and oneness of God, religious leaders don’t excommunicate people for doubts and questions.
“Jews are comfortable with ambiguity,” Dennis said. “You’re not really required to believe anything to be part of the community.”
Jennifer Allen, a Flower Mound mom, said she came to the program because she’s considered converting.
“The best way to describe myself is Christian,” Allen said. “We’ve gone to some churches in the area, but really, I’m disillusioned with the way they’ve been acting. I see the things Christians do now and, to me, that’s not Jesus.”
Allen told Farwah Raza, a Flower Mound Muslim, that she was especially turned off by the certainty she sees among so many Christians.
“I think it’s kind of ridiculous to think we know everything, because nobody does,” Allen said.
Raza said she grew up in a Muslim household that was open to other ideas and faiths, and that welcomed neighbors and friends of all faiths.
“I saw [the ‘Taste of Judaism’ class advertised] on Flower Mound Neighborhood,” Raza said, referring to an online group. “I was part of a group in New York, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. It was for Jewish and Muslim women and it was such a great group. Religion is like art. You can look at a painting and see something so different than what someone else sees.”
Flower Mound’s Yvette Elliott said she signed up for the program out of curiosity.
“I believe Texas is stronger when we know each other,” she said.
This summer’s sessions were smaller than usual, something Dennis attributes to the pandemic.
“People are still uncomfortable getting out of their bubbles a little,” he said.
Dennis said the program is a small outreach, and it’s hard to guess if community-based initiatives like this bring much light to a world that feels dark and hostile.
“The truth of the matter is because Judaism is not a conversionary religion, a lot of people might only encounter us through some social service or social action project. People encounter us when we participate in a Habitat for Humanity project or an interfaith project. It’s good to get out of our bubble. It’s useful to interact with the community as Jews.”
Just last month, Flower Mound staged its first LGBT Pride event.
“I was bound and determined the Jewish community should be represented,” Dennis said. “I have a rainbow Jewish flag and a rainbow Texas flag. We gave people oranges and talked to anyone who stopped by.”
Dennis said the congregation didn’t elicit much surprise from the attendees who stopped by the synagogue’s booth.
“The queer community is pretty conscious that the Reform world is affirming,” he said. “And the Orthodox community is pretty live-and-let-live.”
The pride event put the congregation in a larger pool of people than “A Taste of Judaism” does, but Dennis considers the program more of a cumulative initiative.
“It’s got to be tens of thousands in synagogues across the country who have the program. Some run it every year. I speculated [people] in the thousands have come through,” Dennis said.