Guest Column: Learning at any age, at any stage

“Now, go and study”: Reconstructionist rabbi to teach 14-session course on Judaism beginning in January 2014

I was the odd kid who loved Jewish school and continued studying Hebrew as a foreign-language option in high school. When I began rabbinical school at the age of 33, I had many passionate feelings about Judaism and text study, including a heady mix of exhilaration and resentment.

In the schools and shuls of my youth, I had implicitly and explicitly been excluded from many of its rich offerings, such as prayer-leading or serious text study. Nonetheless, I knew that in order to be fully engaged in sustaining an egalitarian and meaningful Jewish life I would have to engage in deep learning, for, quite simply, one cannot change what one does not already know.

My years of rabbinical school study were challenging and transformative. A key challenge, especially for those of us entering school after a first career or well into adulthood, was a sense of feeling infantilized. It’s very hard, after knowing and doing other “work” with ease, or at the very least with an inner sense of authority, to learn (or perhaps re-learn) rudiments.

Despite years of Hebrew learning, for example, I needed to take a year of preparatory classes in three forms of the language – Biblical Hebrew, Rabbinic Hebrew (including Aramaic) and Modern Hebrew. I can recall with utter clarity sobbing in my Hebrew instructor’s office at the end of the first semester, sure that I would not be able to learn well enough to make a dent in the texts that I would need to take on in the years ahead

It got easier. I learned to love Talmud, and though I would most certainly not style myself an authoritative interpreter of rabbinic text, I eagerly and perpetually wrestle with the rich and endlessly absorbing texts of our tradition.

The experience helped make me a more empathic teacher of adult learners. When I tell students who, as they begin their first attempts to, say, study the siddur (prayer book), learn how to chant from the torah scroll, or prepare a devar torah, I can relate, and tell them with all honesty that I don’t feel that far removed from what they may be feeling. It’s a big undertaking, this embrace of Judaism through study! It can feel daunting, and perhaps even a little embarrassing. A basic message I gleaned from my own “late” entry into serious Jewish learning helps, and I say it often: you can’t know what you don’t yet know.

People take on Jewish learning as adults for many reasons, and as a result of a wide range of circumstances. There are some who had secular or culturally Jewish families of origin, or who lived in times and places where learning options were inaccessible. For those who grew up in another faith, or with no religious background, it can be a first step toward an embrace of Judaism. For others who did have some childhood Jewish education or ritual experience, it may reflect a time of reclaiming and retooling Jewish life and practice.

With cohorts of adult students, I never ceased to be amazed and inspired by the richness of the learning that takes place. For that semester, or that year, those sitting around the table create a havurah of learners, a comradeship that is both fun and serious.  Exploring Judaism at any age and stage provides an opportunity to address the fundamental questions about life and meaning, with an avenue to resources and experiences that binds us to a rich heritage, and an enduring people.

When the great sage Hillel was asked by a seeker to teach him all of Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel gave the famous answer, often referred to as the Golden Rule: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah — the rest is commentary.”

But it’s in the last words of the parable that we find the priceless nugget: “Now, go and study.”


Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach

WHO: Taught by Rabbi Liz Bolton of Or Haneshamah, Ottawa’s Reconstructionist Jewish Community.

WHAT: Designed for adults hoping to deepen their understanding and practice of Judaism. Open to people of Jewish heritage, as well as to those exploring Judaism or considering conversion. Text study and seminar-style classes include such topics as: Shabbat, prayer, kashrut, spirituality, theology, role of the synagogue, Jewish communal life, holidays and life-cycle events.

WHEN: Every 2nd, 4th and 5th Thursday, 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm, beginning Thursday, January 9 until June 26.

WHERE: Old Ottawa East near Clegg and Main. Details to be provided upon registration.

REGISTER: $250 ($125 for members). For information or to register, email, call 613-239-4988, or visit



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