How Can a Religious School Teacher Respond?

I recently spent an hour with religious school teachers in a Reform synagogue, talking about the children from interfaith homes in their classrooms. It amazed me just how emotional and personal even talking about interfaith families was for them. Everyone had a story to share about someone in his or her own family who intermarried or a story about what a child said in the classroom.

It was clear that at this time of year especially, children in Reform religious schools are talking about Hanukkah and Christmas. They are talking about the Christmas trees in their own homes; they are talking about going to their grandparents’  for Christmas; they are discussing how many presents they are going to get; they are trying to work out who they are, what they are experiencing and what it all means.

We grappled with what the “best” response should be when children share parts of their lives that involve family members who aren’t Jewish or experiences such as going to church. Should the teacher just say, “Thank you for sharing that but now we are focusing on learning about Judaism…” and just move on in the lesson? Should the teacher say, “Wow…our Jewish families are each different. Some of you have a parent who isn’t Jewish or wasn’t born Jewish, some of you have cousins and grandparents who aren’t Jewish… but there are lots of things that tie each of you together. Each of you is here because your parents hope you find meaning in Judaism.” Should the teacher stop the lesson and explain that each of us is made up of many traits, attributes, relationships and talents? Some of us are sisters or brothers. We are a daughter or son. We are neighbors and friends. Some of us are known by the sports we play, the art we create, our abilities in math. Some of us are known by our humor or our generosity. We are many things, but in amongst our traits is our Judaism and that is why we are here… to learn about that part of us. 

The religious school teachers and I debated how to best approach a lesson with language that would be the most sensitive and inclusive to a child who has a parent who isn’t Jewish. Is it okay to make blanket statements such as, “Jewish homes have mezuzot,” when in fact some of the children (whether both parents are Jewish or not) have a Jewish home without a mezuzah? Or is it better to talk about some Jewish homes having this or that and explain the meaning behind the ritual or tradition followed by sending materials home so that parents can learn about the ideas as well and have a chance to discuss with their children whether that tradition feels right for their family? 

Is it possible to be sensitive to every unique kind of family so that no child in the room could possibly feel alienated or marginalized? Some teachers wondered if they could say anything at all that wouldn’t rub one child or another the wrong way. I think that when a teacher speaks from his or her heart and soul about his or her own love of Jewish living, and when a teacher imagines that each child in his or her class is the current link in our chain of tradition that goes back thousands of years, and when a teacher gets to know the parents of the children in his or her class so that the teacher can be as understanding as possible of where that child is coming from so that the teacher can make the bridge from the class to the car ride home to the dinner table to the tuck-in time at night… that teacher has done everything he or she can do to fulfill the mandate to teach our children from the V’ahavta (the full version of the Shema which instructs us to, among other things, “teach our children diligently.”) 

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