What Can I Say?

I have lead three workshops recently for religious school teachers and the same frustration came up each time. Teachers wanted me to tell them what to say when a child said x, y, or z. I veer away from giving teachers a script (I provide broad guidelines to think about) because I think each situation is different. The way each child says what they say, who the child is, how old they are, how many times the class has talked about this, etc., has to be taken into account in order for the teacher to know how to respond. However, in this blog I am going to share what I would say to a main comment that I have frequently heard uttered by children of all ages in religious schools.

“I’m only half Jewish.”

As a teacher, I would ask back, “Why do you say that?”

The child may respond, “Because my mom/dad isn’t Jewish and I celebrate Christmas and so I am only half Jewish.” (They may add that they don’t believe in God or other reasons.)

I might ask, “Do you think your parents would describe you as half Jewish?”

If a child says “yes,” I may encourage them to talk with their parents about this. I would be sure to email or call the parents after class to let them know that their child spoke about this in class and that I was happy they felt comfortable sharing with me. I would let the parents know that I encouraged their child to talk with them about these labels of identity. I would also mention that the clergy and educators at the synagogue are open to talking with parents and families about Judaism in an interfaith family and that there are lots of resources and support available to them as they figure out how to speak to their children about religion and identity.

If the child answers “no,” that their parents wouldn’t use this expression, a teacher could ask how they think their parents would describe who the child is religiously. If the child answers that their parents would say they are Jewish, a teacher could explain that maybe their parents have hoped that Judaism would be the religion and way of life they most identify with, but that this doesn’t mean that the other religion in the family is ignored or pushed away. It is wonderful to explore and experience the way one parent was raised and the way some in the family practice. This doesn’t take away from being brought up Jewish.

I would tell the child that a main hope is that we all feel whole and that we feel secure in who we are. I would also tell children that Judaism and Christianity share so much. We share sacred texts, values, core biblical narratives, faith in God, and a desire to make the world a better place. There are many prayers within Christianity and many songs that have roots in Judaism. We both love holidays, rituals, and traditions. But, there are many parts of the religions that are different. It may be hard to really be both religions. You can experience aspects of both religions, learn about both religions, come to love parts of both religions, but you might end up practicing and adhering to one religion. Figuring out who we are is a lifelong pursuit. In religious school and then in high school and college, you can continue to learn about Judaism and may find so many aspects that add much to your life. That’s one reason you are all here. We are here to learn about an ancient religion that still applies to our experiences in the world today. The stories, history, culture, language, and ethics of Judaism – all these aspects and many more – can bring joy, purpose, order, connectedness, and meaning to how we live.

When children bring up issues of identity it can be tricky for the religious school teacher to know what to say, how much to say, what would support the family and the goals of the religious school program and the congregation’s denominational ideology (whether it is Reform or Conservative, for example). This is why I encourage educators to write guidelines such as this and to role play with teachers to help teachers know how to respond to the most commonly talked about issues from going to church, celebrating Christmas or Easter to having family that isn’t Jewish to not believing in God, not wanting to come to religious school/Hebrew school, wondering about Jesus and more.

If you are a religious school teacher, let me know if you could see this dialogue taking place in class and if this is helpful to thinking through how to respond before comments are made so that you are not caught off-guard.

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