It's difficult for Dr. Daniel Bogen to describe what he was feeling about his Jewish heritage until recently. "Disconnected" is a word that seems applicable. "Curious" also applies.
"There was a part of me that I just didn't know," said this soft-spoken, thoughtful M.D./Ph.D., who is an associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania.
Growing up in a totally secular household had left Bogen without ties to Judaism, and a bit lost about how to take the first step toward possible connection.
"Then a friend told me about the 'Taste of Judaism' program, and it seemed a possible way to begin. I wasn't at all sure what I'd find, but I decided to give it a try."
Bogen, 56, will be the first to say that the program, a project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Kehillah of Center City, changed his life. "I not only put my foot in the water, I began to see that I really wanted and needed more of an immersion."
"Taste of Judaism," which began in Center City three years ago, helps to further the mission of the Kehillah of Center City, which is to build bridges among Center City synagogues and institutions, develop a high profile for the Center City Jewish community, and provide entry points for unaffiliated and underaffiliated Jews living and working in Center City.
The Kehillah of Center City is one of seven neighborhood collaboratives supported by Federation's Center for Jewish Life and Learning. Through the kehillot, the center strengthens the Jewish community and synagogue life throughout Greater Philadelphia.
For Bogen, the Kehillah of Center City's mission has clearly been fulfilled. "It was wonderful to begin exploring the foundations of Judaism, and to do it in an atmosphere of lively interchange with people of diverse backgrounds," he said. "I felt completely comfortable and reassured that there were others who were as disconnected as I was, although perhaps for different reasons, and that we all could learn not just from Rabbi Avi Winokur, who led the class, but from one another."
Since sampling his "Taste of," Bogen has gone on to study at Winokur's Society Hill Synagogue, and, in fact, to become a member.
Bogen's experience is a ringing endorsement for the program, which consists of three two-hour sessions led by Center City rabbis, and which welcomes Jews, interfaith couples and interested non-Jews to actively explore the Jewish perspective on spirituality, values and community.
That the course so enriched Bogen's life is music to the ears of Catherine Fischer, Kehillah of Center City coordinator. "This is a wonderful opportunity for those who may be seeking to explore — or re-explore — the foundations of Judaism," said Fischer, who has been the guiding light of the program, which now consists of "Taste of Judaism: Are You Curious Part 1," and its sequel, "Taste of Judaism 2," which is new this year, and explores Jewish life-cycle events, wisdom and the calendar.
"We've grown, and we keep on growing," said Fischer, noting that "Taste 1" had four separate groups running last fall and two this spring, and that "Taste 2" had four classes this spring. "There is such a need for this opportunity to figuratively 'taste' the richness of Jewish history, culture and traditions, and Jews and non-Jews alike are welcome."
Fischer also emphasized that the Kehillah runs varied programs year-round, and that there are special programs and events geared to Center City's 15,000-strong Jewish population.
Sarah Bricknell, a partner in a Center City law firm, was drawn to Judaism despite her own Roman Catholic background. "I had been interested in converting for quite some time because Catholicism just didn't work for me. But I really wanted to know and learn more."
At the same time that she was on the brink of conversion to Judaism, Bricknell enrolled in a "Taste of Judaism" class. "It was so gratifying, so fulfilling, to learn from (instructor) Rabbi Ira F. Stone," said Bricknell, who took "Taste 1" and "Taste 2," and has continued studying on her own.
"I realized that yes, Judaism is truly what I want," said Bricknell, who has completed her conversion.
Bricknell, engaged to be married to a Jewish man, is delighted that Stone, of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, will be officiating at their wedding in New York.
"It feels so right that someone who has truly helped me to embrace this heritage will be a part of this milestone. And I plan to continue to study and learn because I'm absolutely fascinated by everything — from the holidays and customs to the laws and life-cycle events."
'What Judaism Is Really About'
It's not just the students who are delighted by the program's content and context; Winokur said he remains as stimulated and charged by the classes as his students are.
"This is what Judaism is really all about — learning, exchanging ideas, the excitement of questioning and exploring," he said. "I believe that this is the greatest way to reach unaffiliated Jews, and the material on which we base our sessions is effective and well-thought out."
Winokur has seen and experienced awakenings that are enormously gratifying. He has met a significant number of Jews by birth — from young single adults to empty-nesters — who knew almost nothing about their heritage and its foundations.
"The Jewish blood was there, but that's where it ended," he noted.
Undeniably, suggested the rabbi, there are seekers out there who needed a way to ignite their Judaism, or return to it after long lapses. "I've seen that marginal Jews are really hungry and thirsty to learn, and that 'Taste of Judaism' fits right in with that yearning. It's a small and focused commitment that can quite easily grow bigger."
It has for David Skolnick.
This Philadelphia native had spent most of his adult life in San Francisco as a partner in a high-powered communications consulting company. Several years ago, a project brought him back to Philadelphia, and Skolnick was so taken with the positive changes in his hometown that he and his wife decided to "test drive" the city. That led to the decision to relocate here as Center City residents.
Skolnick, 59, a perennial student along with his wife, also decided to look around for some interesting courses. That's how he found "Taste of Judaism."
"I was born Jewish, but our home was definitely not religious," he explained. "So here I am, still exploring my roots, and I've been so impressed with the program that I signed on for the second session. Rabbi Stone allows the students to follow our own areas of interest yet still leads in an effective way. And that, to me, is the definition of great teaching."
So, what's next?
"Wherever the search leads us — and that's what's wonderful about being in this city," said Skolnick. "I love Philadelphia, and I love the Kehillah. Now I'm here to stay."
"A Taste of Judaism" will continue in the fall of 2007. Registration begins now for fall classes.
For more information, call 215-832-0597 or visit: www.jewishphilly.org/cck.