Many people want to be welcoming but don’t necessarily know exactly how to provide the welcoming learning environment for interfaith families and kids. In this essay, I’ll provide some tips on how to engage kids from interfaith homes in classrooms and how to handle potentially awkward situations.
1. Respect the family. Keep your own opinion out of the conversation. The children need to feel validated, not uncomfortable. Be prepared for anything. Families come in all shapes and sizes and have all kinds of dynamics. Some families may be raising their children in “both” religions or incorporate varying degrees of each religion. Grandparents may not be supportive. Students may believe in Santa Claus. Relatives may celebrate Kwanza. There are infinite ways to be a family.
2. Respect the other parent’s religion. If a child refers to another holiday celebration with relatives who are not Jewish:
a. Listen. A key element of listening is eye contact. Pay attention to what the student is telling you about a religious experience. If you can relate their story to something Jewish, great. If not, just listen attentively. If you don’t have time to talk because class is starting, say that you would love to talk in greater detail after class and then make sure to offer to talk to them after class.
b. Ask questions. “Did you enjoy going to church?” If you end the conversation abruptly because you are uncomfortable or in a rush, the student may think that he said something wrong. Asking questions (within time constraints of the class) shows that you are interested.
c. Support. Your response of support will enable the student to be happy about their experience. Students should never feel bad if they participated in a family event that wasn’t Jewish. Responses like: “That is great that you had fun with your cousins. You are lucky to be exposed to so many different types of religion.”
d. Pay attention to all of the students. The whole class is potentially listening to your conversation about interfaith issues. The students will take their cues from you and it is key to set an example of support. If you hear another student give a negative response (or make a face) be sure to provide a supportive environment to all of the students. The student that provides a negative response should get the cue that in this classroom, we don’t judge other people but accept one another. It is a mitzvah to support your whole family.
3. Truth. What if a child says: “My cousins told me that the Jews killed Jesus—but I told them, I didn’t.” This is simply not true but it is a long stated myth. This is a good opportunity to set the record straight by saying. 1) That’s not true. 2) The Romans killed Jesus. 3) That was a long time ago and Romans are predominantly Christian now. Please remember that what you teach the students now is what they will remember their entire life. This opportunity to teach not only this student, but the whole class, will be important for defending against anti-Semitic comments in the future.
4. Unconditional support. Families and children need encouragement. Religious school for many families is not a requirement like a high school diploma so a negative interaction can be catastrophic. Families frequently switch to another synagogue if they have a bad experience in Hebrew school. In some cases, families will leave Jewish life completely. The burden is on you (not easy, is it?!). Make it fun, be welcoming, be supportive and teach the students as much as you can.
5. Adaptation. Whenever you can, point out ways in which interfaith families have been important to the Jewish culture. The story of Ruth (an ancestress of King David), a Midianite woman who married a Jewish man and identified with the Jewish people and God, that we read on Shavuot is a great example. The story of Esther, who married a King who wasn’t Jewish and saved the Jews, which read on Purim, is another example.
6. Instill pride. Jessica is part Jewish, Cherokee, Irish and Italian. She is special and unlike any other human being. She should finish her year in your class feeling happy that she has learned some stories, some songs, some traditions, some Hebrew, some of the commandments, and wants to come back next year! Jessica should be proud to be Jessica. Interfaith kids should NEVER be made to feel like anything less than ALL JEWISH when they are in your classroom. All students should be proud of their differences and proud of their Judaism. People will participate in a culture where they feel like they are part of the “home team.” You should never call a child “half-Jewish” or their parent a “goy” and should try to stay away from saying “non-Jew” as well. If a child is attending religious school, then that child is Jewish.
7. Turn it around. There will be many awkward situations throughout your career. Take the opportunity to turn the situation into a “teachable moment.” Many families may not be enlightened about how to be welcoming. You will set the example for the kids about how to be proud and accepting of people’s differences, not only regarding religion but other differences as well.
You are an educator and your role in the development of your students is meaningful and powerful. On behalf of Jewish families in America, thank you for your efforts.