Shtetl is the Yiddish diminutive meaning “small town”. Shtetl refers primarily to the Jewish villages which existed in Eastern Europe starting in the 16th century and continuing until World War II. Though they varied greatly in size, the shtetls had a unique socio-cultural communal pattern.


The Gemara refers to the second major layer of Jewish commentary on the Torah (Mihsna being the first). The Gemara is the written account of the legal deliberations of the generations known as the Amoraim, who lived approximately from the 3rd to 5th centuries CE. Stylistically, the Gemara is a commentary that dissects the Mishna line-by-line, elaborating on the terse prose of the Mishna to draw out contemporary concerns touching on almost any aspect of life imaginable.


Kehillah is a Hebrew term for community, and generally refers to the formal communal structure of European Jewish communities.


The seder, literally “order” in Hebrew (with the same etymological root as siddur), is the traditional family service, held around the dinner table, that marks the opening of the celebration of Passover. The meal includes special foods, symbols, and narratives. The order of the service is found in the traditional narrative called the Passover Haggadah.

Deuteronomy, Book of

The fifth book of the Humash or Five Books of Moses, Deuteronomy (or Dvarim in Hebrew, meaning ‘Words’) is composed of the final speech of Moses’ life, followed by the narration of his death. Deuteronomy contains many retellings of events and laws that appear earlier in the Torah, most notably the Ten Commandments.


Rebbe is the title of the spiritual leader of the Hasidim, the pietist Jewish movement which began in 18th century Poland and continues today, with its honoring of holy teachers and its emphasis on prayer and devotion.


Zion is a sacred hill in Jerusalem and refers, by extension, to Jerusalem and the homeland of the Hebrew people. In this latter sense, Zion came to symbolize Jewish national-religious hopes of renewal and Zionism became the name of the 19th and 20th century movement to create a new homeland for the Jewish people in Israel. These hopes were fulfilled, at least in part, through the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Zionism has penetrated Jewish life overwhelmingly, and plays an extremely important role in the identity of Jews, as individuals and communities.

Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism is an American Jewish movement, reacting to early Jewish Reform movements by attempting to retain clearer links to Jewish law and tradition, while at the same time adapting to modern situations. Its scholarly center in the US is the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.


Jerusalem, the ancient capital of Israel from the time of King David (c. 1000 BCE), was the ritual and spiritual center of the Jewish people for 1,000 years until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. For Jews, Jerusalem is still the geographical epicenter of the tradition. For Christians, Jerusalem the site of the mighty events of Christ’s death and resurrection. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the place where the prophet Muhammad came on his Night Journey from Makkah to the very throne of God.


Pogrom, from the Russian word for “devastation,” refers to the attacks, riots and rampages against Jewish communities, especially in Eastern Europe and Russia.

Wise, Isaac Mayer

Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900) was the principal leader in the formation of America’s Reform Judaism in the 1870s. He participated in founding the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati (1875) and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1873).


The bimah is the raised area at the front of an Ashkenazi synagogue where the desk for reading the Torah is located.


(also: Shoah) Holocaust (from Greek, entire burnt offering) refers in modern times to the Nazi German campaign to exterminate the Jewish people during the 1930s and 1940s with death camps and gas chambers. Six million Jews died in this Holocaust. In Hebrew, the Holocaust is referred to as “Shoah.”


A tevah is the platform from which the Torah is read in Sephardic synagogues. It is equivalent to a “bimah” in the Ashkenazi tradition.


The ark, or Aron ha-Kodesh (the Holy Ark) in Hebrew, is the holy chest or cabinet where the Torah scrolls are kept in a synagogue on the wall facing Jerusalem.