16 Detroit-area rabbis and Jewish educators gathered in person at Temple Israel to learn about Thoughtful Judaism.

Taking a pluralistic approach to Jewish education, the course will spark deeper conversations on where today’s Jews fit in with their tribe — in terms of faith, ethics, practice and community.

Jewish learners in Metro Detroit from teens to adults can embark upon a new path to study — thanks to “Thoughtful Judaism,” a new curriculum designed by the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem.

Taking a pluralistic approach to Jewish education, the course will spark deeper conversations on where today’s Jews fit in with their tribe — in terms of faith, ethics, practice and community.

Thoughtful Judaism is brought to Detroit by a two-year $60,000 grant from the Hermelin-Davidson Center for Congregation Excellence.

Rebecca Starr
Rebecca Starr

According to Rebecca Starr, director of regional programs for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, Thoughtful Judaism is a curriculum based on wide-sweeping thoughts and concepts about Jewish identity and peoplehood for the 21st century rather than focusing on the details of practicing the religion. She hopes that the new curriculum will lead to the “deep meaningful conversations” that people in the Jewish community need to have as they continue to deal with and emerge from the pandemic. 

“The Detroit Jewish community needs to shake the notion that they can wait out the pandemic and go back to the synagogue or other Jewish institutions just as they did in 2019,” Starr said.

“Going back to shul will be different, and so will the way we do Jewish learning and education. Thoughtful Judaism is much more about answering questions like what it means to be part of a collective, a tribal people and what is my role in this collective. 

“It’s much different from answering questions like, when and how do we light Shabbat and Chanukah candles. Those elements are important, too, but this curriculum is designed to elevate the conversation about Judaism.”

Training Educators

Earlier in August, Starr trained 17 local rabbis and Jewish educators from 13 area Jewish institutions on the adaptable, modular curriculum at an in-person seminar at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield.

“The big takeaway we gave to those who attended the training [in person and on Zoom] was: The Hartman Institute gives you the four volumes of the curriculum, and you have the creativity and know your constituents and the ways to create classes for them,” Starr said.

“The Hartman Institute hopes classes developed from this curriculum will invite those in interfaith marriages, the unaffiliated and those feeling marginalized in the Jewish community to come in and join the conversation and not stay on the sidelines.”

JLearn, a project of the Jewish Community Center of Metro Detroit, is the first in the community to spearhead efforts to offer Thoughtful Judaism classes beginning in October with two 12-week semesters either Monday evenings or Wednesday mornings over Zoom for 75 minutes. All classes for the fall semester will be on Zoom only.

Shelly Wish Chaness
Shelly Wish Chaness

JLearn will determine if the second semester, beginning in January, will be offered in a hybrid format. The cost of the coursework is $175 per semester or $300 for the entire year, and scholarships are available. For detailed information, call (248) 205-2557 or go to jlearn.online.

“We are so fortunate that Rebecca Starr is steering the ship on bringing Thoughtful Judaism to Detroit as she has taught classes for JLearn for many years,” said JLearn Senior Director Shelley Wish Chaness. “We are making classes accessible for time-crunched people because we understand, these days, time is a commodity. Because of the flexibility of the curriculum, instructors can take a broad overview approach or a deeper dive into each of the concepts.” 

Four Themes

Thoughtful Judaism revolves around four themes: 

Peoplehood: The meaning and definition and purpose of Jewish community, how it can be diverse and hold shared values and a shared history and an exploration of the main centers of Jewish life: Israel and North America. 

Faith: An exploration of questions relating to one’s relationship with God and what a life of faith entails, models in Judaism that exemplify the complexities of having a relationship with God as well as viewpoints on where Jews who do not believe in God fit in. 

Practice: What is the meaning of the system of mitzvot and what does it accomplish? In an age that encourages independent and self-minded thinking, how can one find relevance in rituals and how the sanctification of time, space and body can lead to holiness. 

Ethics: In what ways is the individual obligated to the widest and innermost circles of community according to Jewish tradition? How to maintain relationships even when one party wrongs another, and the obligations parents and children have to one another. 

To add to the multimedia aspect of the curriculum, each volume is accompanied by a series of podcasts and 10-minute videos.

“The beautiful part about the Hartman curriculum is that is not as heavy as other learning programs we have taught in the past,” Chaness said. “The lessons have a basic format built on Jewish texts, but they allow for news articles, videos or even songs — anything that allows more current relevance to the subject matter.” 

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Stacy Gittleman is an award-winning journalist and has been a contributing writer for the Detroit Jewish News for the last five years. Prior to moving to Metro Detroit in 2013, she was a columnist and feature writer for Gannett's Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, NY. She also manages social media pages for other local non-profit organizations including the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Contact her with breaking news and feature story ideas that impact Detroit's Jewish community at stacy.gittleman@yahoo.com