Offering more than a chance Encounter with courses in Jewish faith, spirituality

January 30, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Rabbi Yisroel Roll wants to make Judaism so desirable, so delectable, that mouths water.

Roll is an Orthodox rabbi with the religious sensibility of a Torah sage and the marketing acumen of a Madison Avenue ad man.

He drew on both to create Encounter, the funky London-based Jewish education program that has made its American debut in Baltimore through a series of classes called "Judaism a la Carte."

"We're trying to market Judaism, market spirituality, and make people excited about it, because many people are turned off by anything religious, anything spiritual," said Roll, a former defense lawyer in Toronto who made a career change 11 years ago to seek rabbinical ordination. "My goal is to bring people back into community life by showing them that Judaism is with it, is exciting, has something to say to them."

Roll, 42, was a rabbi in London's West End when he and some colleagues hit on the idea for Encounter about five years ago. It started with a weekend conference that was so successful it grew in to a series of classes that explored ultimate questions, such as "What's the Meaning of Life?"

This is no Torah-lite, Roll explained. The subject matter in the Encounter courses is based on solid Torah and Talmudic teaching, and is presented from the perspective of Orthodox Judaism. But its intention is to offer Jewish knowledge in a way that makes it intriguing to Jews who might have a marginal affiliation, or none, with a synagogue in an effort to counter the growing rate of assimilation and intermarriage.

Judaism a la Carte is a partnership between Encounter and two Baltimore groups, the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies and the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies. It invites prospective students to launch the New Year "with some Jewish soul food."

Under headings such as hors d'oeuvres, entrees and decadent desserts are some rich brain food:

"Krispy Kremes & Kabbalah" explores the world of Jewish mysticism. "Smorgasbord I" covers basic Judaism in five not-necessarily-easy lessons. One course promises students that they'll be able to read Hebrew in five weeks. "All About Eve," discusses issues important to women in Jewish life. And "Decadent Desserts" is described as a five-week crash course in the meaning of life.

The courses will meet for three terms each year at the two locations of Etz Chaim, in Upper Park Heights and Owings Mills; at Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville; and at B'nai Israel Congregation east of the Inner Harbor.

But the idea also is to bring classes to where people live and work, particularly to the demographic Encounter most desires: Jewish singles. At Bonnie Ridge Apartments in Mount Washington, a group of Jewish singles is gathering each Tuesday night for five weeks to wrestle with the meaning of life, as presented by Sheldon Tajerstein, a podiatrist who is one of several local experts recruited to teach courses.

"Judaism has a particular view of pleasure that's different from other religions," Tajerstein said during his lecture on "The Pleasure Principle."

"There is nothing Jewish about being a stoic. There is nothing Jewish about withdrawing from the world. It's there to enjoy," he said.

Judaism also offers two mechanisms to make pleasure more fulfilling. One is to make humans aware of the giver of the gift of the world: God. The second is to restrict the use of these gifts - thus, the notion of kashrut, or kosher, the restricting of what can be consumed and in which combination. The result is a refinement in taste and an increase in gratitude for the gifts of the world, Tajerstein said.

Information: Encounter, 410- 764-1553. Most courses cost $18.

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