Arizona Chabads prepare for tough conversations in their course ‘Defining the Divine’

Posted Friday, Nov 4th, 2022

People often drop phrases such as “God willing,” “God forbid” or “Thank God” into their daily conversation without a second thought. But who is God and what does God want? This month, several Chabads in Arizona are going to explore these complicated questions with what they call “an eye-opening and thought-provoking” class.

Chabad Tucson Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin told Jewish News he isn’t promising students “absolute answers” to the questions presented during the course, “but I can assure them it will be an enjoyable and intellectually stimulating journey, and hopefully, an enlightening one, too.”

Ceitlin asserted that it’s typical in the Jewish community not to discuss God too much. Instead, “it’s what you leave at the door when walking into a Seder” — where people talk about God’s actions but not who God is or what God wants.

Ceitlin will join the Chabads of Downtown Phoenix, Phoenix, Paradise Valley and Scottsdale in teaching “My G-d — Defining the Divine” for six weeks starting this month. The first class is Wednesday, Nov. 9, except for Chabad of Paradise Valley, which begins on Wednesday, Nov. 16. Even those who miss the first couple of classes are still invited to register.

The class was developed by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) in New York, which offers 190 different courses to more than 350,000 people across the country every year, according to its website. Local Chabads generally teach one of these adult education courses three times a year.

The class’ students represent a diverse set of people, Ceitlin explained. “When you look around the room, you don’t see regular Chabad-goers or adherents to Orthodoxy,” he said.

Most people signing up for these seasonal courses are simply curious about their Jewish heritage, interested in delving deeper into Jewish thought or even non-Jews with a general interest in other faiths.

Chabad of Downtown Phoenix Rabbi Dovber Dechter is more used to teaching rabbinical and high school students. Still, as the leader of Greater Phoenix’s newest Chabad locations, he added these Rohr courses to his repertoire about a year ago.

It’s required of his younger students to attend his classes, and his challenge with them is to keep their attention long enough to impart knowledge.

Adults, on the other hand, choose to come to class. They’re already interested enough to pay for their spot and take time away from busy work and family schedules to attend. Thus, the onus is on him to make these courses engaging and worthwhile.

“Jewish education is important to people and we try to make it as accessible, enjoyable and meaningful as possible,” Dechter said. “We want them to gain something from it.

It helps that he can turn to other local Chabad teachers to discuss what’s working and what’s not and share ideas and feedback from students. They work together to create a multimedia and interactive class environment to keep the students coming back and spreading the word about future classes.

The course presents 25 questions people have about God. The Rohr Institute collected a variety of questions, from the classic, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” to the more modern, “Is God a he or a she?” and “Does God have feelings?”

Each session will cover a few of these questions, though not in a dogmatic way, Ceitlin pointed out.

“We’re not trying to convince people that God exists or convert them into a specific way of thinking,” he said. Rather, the class will represent commentary and ideas from classical and modern sources of Jewish thought and everything in between. “We’ll use a blend of all of it to provide answers and people will be welcome to take it or leave it.”

Ceitlin was surprised to realize that he, too, felt a bit daunted by the coursework.

Usually, he spends a lot of time advertising a class like this and sends out personal emails. This time around, however, he seemed to be dragging his heels a bit. His wife told him that finding excuses to put something off might mean he didn’t want to do it.

That wasn’t it.

“What really held me back was that I was feeling a bit intimidated about tackling 25 tough questions about God with the participation of a crowd,” he said. “The things we’re most reluctant to do are the most rewarding.”

Now, he’s excited and looking forward to the class, particularly as an observant Jew who is constantly mentioning God in daily prayers and conversation. Still, practicing Judaism is not enough, he said.

“We’re meant to know God, to probe, to question, to figure out God to the best of our ability.”

Dechter agreed and said that the preparation he’s put into the course already has him excited about all the ideas and discussions that will benefit him personally, as well as the students.

He’s conscious, however, that some of his students might be coming from a place of pain or trauma and in need of deep, spiritual meaning.

Because these courses are offered only sparingly, there is room for a much more serious and focused learning environment, he said. His hope is that this will be an opportunity for people to come and grow, while also anchoring his relatively new Chabad in the community. JN

For more information or to register for the class, visit

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