JLIFE RECENTLY HAD the chance to catch up with Rabbi Stephen J. Einstein, D.H.L., D.D. at the last session of his Intro to Judaism course. We will misss him very much, but are so happy to think of all the lives he has touched over these many years.
What inspired you to start teaching Intro to Judaism? In the summer of 1976, I had left my prior synagogue and we were just forming Congregation B’nai Tzedek. Rabbi Art Hollander (of blessed memory), who had been teaching the Orange County Board of Rabbis-sponsored community-wide Introduction to Judaism course, called me and said, “I need this job, but you need it more.” At that point, I couldn’t disagree! Besides, since my ordination five years earlier, I had enjoyed working with people who were converting to Judaism. So, I readily accepted the position, which was formally offered by the OC Board of Rabbis and endorsed by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism) that administered the course.
What are some of your favorite lessons/themes of this course? After I had been teaching the class for a few years, I got a phone call from the Union’s Regional Director. He asked me to meet with a woman who had been urging him to consider altering the curriculum of the Intro course. This individual, a Jew by Choice who had recently completed her Master of Arts in Judaic Studies at the Hebrew Union College, felt that the curriculum then in use gave good information to the students, but did not provide them with the tools necessary to live a Jewish life. As soon as I met Lydia Kukoff, it became clear that we were in complete accord. Together, we led a team of rabbis and educators in creating a new curriculum. Published under the title Introduction to Judaism, it became the standard course for Basic Judaism courses throughout North America for the next three decades. The approach of the course was to use the Jewish holidays and life-cycle events as our entryway to discuss both the beliefs and the practices of Judaism. Lydia and I went on to write Every Person’s Guide to Judaism.
After 41 years, what are some of the most interesting experiences you have had teaching this course? I truly loved teaching this course, and the students found my enthusiasm to be contagious. Back in the fall of 1976, I met with my rabbi and mentor, Professor Samson H. Levey, who—together with Rabbi Albert M. Lewis (both now of blessed memory)—had originated the Intro to Judaism program in Los Angeles in the 1950s. As always, he gave me sterling advice: “You must not simply teach Judaism; you must BE Judaism for your students.” Through the years, I often said, “My two most favorite times of the week are Monday evenings (when the Intro class meets) and Shabbat…and I really meant it.
What makes these students unique? Students who enter the Introduction to Judaism class are hungry for knowledge. They come from a variety of backgrounds. Some plan to convert, others intend to live in a Jewish family setting, and still others simply wish to deepen their knowledge base. My teaching this course led me to the subject which became the topic of my doctoral dissertation—Conversion: What Do Rabbis Want? I came to understand that rabbis derive great satisfaction teaching this population because the candidates are open not only to learning the principles of Judaism but also to exploring ways to make Jewish practice a meaningful part of their lives.
What have you learned from teaching this course? I have often been asked: How can you teach the same course over and over again? Don’t you get bored? I have never gotten bored in teaching Introduction to Judaism…not for one minute! While the material remained essentially the same (I followed the curriculum our team created quite closely), the students in each class differed. Every teacher understands “class chemistry.” We have always had at least one or two “sparkplugs” who would ask the questions that led to lively discussions. My favorite part of each lesson was the first segment that I called Shmooze-time. Students could raise any question or make any comment…and we would be off and running.
How does it differ from your current and past work (as rabbi emeritus and rabbi) at Congregation B’nai Tzedek? I really see it all as one-of-a-piece. My essential philosophy—as the teacher of the Introduction to Judaism course, as the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek, and now as the Founding rabbi emeritus—is simply this: Every person counts. Each of us is created is the Divine Image. So, we are to greet each person with a cheerful countenance and treat everyone with kindness and respect.
Anything you would like to add or make sure we cover? The text that has called out to me every week that I have taught Introduction to Judaism is found in the Talmud (Ta’anit 7a) where Rabbi Chanina bequeaths us this crucial lesson: “Harbei lamad’ti meirabotai” ….—I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my colleagues, but most of all have I learned from my students.” Througout my 41 years of teaching this course, Rabbi Chanina’s words have rung true.
What is the next chapter for you? Even as a rabbinical student, I envisioned a life of involvement in the Jewish community and the general community wherever I might live. Throughout my rabbinic career, I have held to this model, and it hasn’t really changed during my retirement years.
Here are a few of my current involvements:
- S’gan Av Bet Din (Associate Director), Treasurer, and Co-Chair of the Board, Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din (a pluralistic entry point into the Jewish Community)
- Executive Committee of CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice)
- Board, CSP (Community Scholar Program)
Orange County Board of Rabbis
- Personnel Commission of the Fountain Valley School District
- Chaplain, Fountain Valley Police Department
- Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council
- Catholic-Jewish Dialogue
Co-Chair of the Board of Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din (Din (a pluralistic entry point into the Jewish community).
And, of course, we have kids and grandkids to visit in various parts of the country!