Elements of Judaism: Walking Jewishly Through Life by Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas (From Charlotte Jewish News Editorial, March 2018)

Being a Jewish clergy person is a pretty fantastic job. On almost any given day, I will encounter lots of different people, each experiencing a variety of different things, some of them incredibly happy and others tragically sad, some of them unique and exciting and others still, rather mundane. While it is difficult sometimes to walk with people through their hard times, it is also an incredible privilege to share in the sanctity of life. The difficulties are usually in balance with the great joys. In between, there is an entire world of walking with people through everyday life.

One of the “walks” that I frequently accompany as a cantor is the journey from considering joining the Jewish people to conversion and beyond. Working with adults actively choosing to join the Jewish people can be one of the most beautiful and rewarding elements of what we do as clergy.

At Temple Beth El, the path to conversion begins with taking the course Elements of Judaism. Elements is taught by talented teachers from our community and meets on 7 Tuesday evenings in the spring or in the late summer each year. The teachers walk students through a broad overview of Jewish history, belief, and practice. Elements is open to anyone who is interested in this 50,000 foot view of Judaism. Our students are usually a mix of people who were born Jewish but want to take a refresher course or engage in study as an adult, individuals from surrounding houses of faith who want to learn more about Judaism, and those who think they might be on a path to conversion. The open nature of this class allows our future conversion candidates to have a low-pressure entry point where they can best evaluate their interest and desires around conversion.

While a student is enrolled in Elements, someone who would like to convert is scheduled to meet with me or one of our rabbis. During this meeting, we learn more about one another – the person’s background as well as a bit about Judaism, the Reform Movement, and TBE and our process. If the candidate and the clergy are comfortable moving forward, that student is given information to register for our Choosing Judaism course.

Choosing Judaism is taught by the TBE clergy, each of us typically teaching several of the classes. During this time, the rabbis and I have an incredible opportunity to really get to know people on an individual and group basis. We explore some of the most interesting parts of Jewish life and belief: What do we think about God? What does thinking and acting Jewish look like for each of us as individuals and as people living in contemporary society? How does one begin to take the Jewish story on as their own when, perhaps they’ve had another story their whole lives? How does that story mesh and meld with the idea of Jewish peoplehood? What does it mean to be responsible for one another and for our world? What does it mean to navigate Jewish community and responsibility? There is a great joy working with curious and engaged adults through these questions and others.

The truth is that we learn beautiful things about Judaism from those who choose it for themselves. We are reminded that Judaism can be embracing and welcoming and a home. We are reminded that it is more than acceptable to ask questions and to challenge, it is our imperative. We are reminded that there are rich and varied and complex layers of history and story and song and food and art and beauty. We are reminded that each of us in our infinite variety are made B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of our Creator. We are reminded that love can be boundless and that we are all the more rich for sharing that love with open arms.

I am privileged to serve a movement and a synagogue community where our tent-flaps are wide open and our arms ever-ready to embrace a new member of the tribe.


Registration for the spring session Elements of Judaism is open until March 5th. The class is open to all who, whether you were born Jewish, are interested in learning more about Judaism, or are considering a path to conversion.