Building the Bridge

Jewish worship experiences can nourish the soul. 

That is, of course, if a person understands the meaning of those prayers in the first place. 

Many Jewish adults find comfort in Shabbat or holiday services. But without a working knowledge of prayer-book Hebrew, something inevitably gets lost in translation. 

“I find that many of my students have a strong Jewish identity, but when they look at the prayers, they feel an uncomfortable distance,” explained Rabbi JoHanna Potts, instructor of the Hebrew 101 class at Jewish Life University. “They want to build a bridge.”

Rabbi Potts has over 35-years of experience teaching Hebrew to adults. During that time she’s noticed a gap between her student’s secular and Jewish knowledge.

“As modern Jews living in the D.C. area, most of my students have an area of professional expertise, but are considerably less confident in their Jewish knowledge. That can be uncomfortable,” Rabbi Potts said. “We focus on bridging that gap by making the Hebrew 101 classroom a safe space to be vulnerable and become open to learning again.”

“I have yet to meet a Jew who feels that he or she ‘adequately’ has a handle on all of Judaism – myself included,” admitted Rabbi Gil Steinlauf. “But it’s a problem when Jews are paralyzed by the feeling that they simply don’t have enough knowledge or Jewish experience to get past the perceived entrance barrier to greater Jewish involvement.”

To solve that problem, Rabbi Steinlauf founded Jewish Life University, a program offered by Kol Shalom Congregation of Rockville, MD, and designed for those in the greater-Washington D.C. region who seek to learn the basics of the Jewish “operating system.”

“It can be helpful to look at Judaism as a technology or toolkit that you can use to become the person you want to be,” Rabbi Steinlauf explained. “Like all technologies, we need some guidance on how best to use the software and the hardware. Once we know how to use the tools Judaism gives us, we are sure to be inspired to reach a new level of Jewish identity.” 

Among the first courses offered by Jewish Life University, Hebrew 101 is a class for students who wish to understand the meaning of Jewish prayers. As such, students will begin by reviewing Hebrew vocabulary.

“Once a person learns some key Hebrew words, and moreover, how the Hebrew language constructs words, then they can apply that understanding to interpret all prayers,” Rabbi Potts said.

But Hebrew 101 does not focus on conversational Hebrew, so students should not expect to learn how to order a coffee in Jerusalem. Instead, the class teaches prayer-book Hebrew in a way that reveals the depth of wisdom that one can draw from Jewish prayer. Students will explore the significance of the prayer’s vocabulary, the reason for its placement in a specific part of the service, and its biblical connections. 

For that reason, Hebrew 101 students should have a working knowledge of the Hebrew language. While Rabbi Potts won’t teach the Hebrew alphabet in this class, she is more than willing to provide the resources required to get students of any knowledge level up-to-speed. 

“The person who will find this class most interesting is the person who regularly attends services but wants to truly understand the meaning of the words they chant every week, not simply recite the prayers,” Rabbi Potts said. “Another person who might be interested in this class is one who has stopped coming to services altogether, specifically because they don’t understand Hebrew. Still, a third person who would benefit from this class is someone who has perhaps just returned to Judaism for the first time in their adult life and is looking for a way to reconnect with their Jewish identity.” 

No matter how students arrive in her classroom, Rabbi Potts observes that each wants to enhance their understanding of Jewish tradition.

“I like to think of each student as a Sukkah before decoration,” Rabbi Potts illustrated. “They already have a strong framework. Now they are engaged in the task of making their Sukkah beautiful.”

Building off Rabbi Potts’ Sukkot analogy, Rabbi Steinlauf added: “Just as we teach when we take up the Lulav and Etrog on Sukkot, the Jewish people are an agudah achat, a single group that includes both knowledgeable and non-knowledgeable Jews as equals.”

Indeed, Hebrew 101 is an example of the Jewish people as “agudah achat” – a single group. 

“The students in my class don’t simply learn for themselves. Rather, they’re a part of each others’ process,” Rabbi Potts explained. “Each student is part of a class community, and the class operates within the context of a larger Jewish community.”

Through chevruta (small group learning) and class activities, students will expand and apply their knowledge. As such, those enrolled in Hebrew 101 can expect to attend prayer services with their classmates, and may even enjoy a Shabbat meal together.

“Learning is a Jewish value, and Jews have the responsibility and opportunity to develop their individual expression of Judaism within the context of our faith,” Rabbi Potts offered. “One’s relationship to and understanding of Judaism is not the same at 30-years-old, as it is at 40 or even at 60 years-old. Our students already feel motivated to build that bridge between a vibrant Jewish identity and a deeper understanding of the tradition. Now they need permission to explore, and that encouragement is precisely what they’ll find at Hebrew 101 and Jewish Life University. “

Jewish Life University offers Hebrew 101 on Wednesdays from 7:30-9:00 pm for the following dates: February 12 & 26, March 11 & 25, April 22, May 6 & 20, June 3. The course fee is $80 per person. You can register online for Hebrew 101 by clicking this link