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If one were to ask a Jewish educator what the focus of her religious school curriculum is, the response would be "to prepare our students to lead a meaningful Jewish life." Given the limited number of hours we have in which to do this, there is little room in our curriculum for subjects not directly related to Judaism. However, as the numbers of interfaith families in our synagogues increase, educators are confronting a challenge that was not present ten years ago — the need to address issues and questions relating to Christianity.
Nine years ago at a Reform movement conference for Jewish educators on outreach to interfaith families, the following scenario was presented:
You, the teacher, are doing a special project with your fifth grade students on Jewish heroes and heroines. You have asked your students to do an independent one-page report on a Jewish man or woman who has championed Jewish values and ideals. Alex Bishop, one of the brighter students in your class, hands in his report. You are somewhat shocked as you begin to read it. He has chosen Jesus as the subject of his report. What do you do?
When this conference took place, the Jewish community was still processing the implications of the dramatic increase in intermarriage as evidenced in the 1990 Jewish Population Report. Many of us were aware that we had interfaith families in our congregations and that their children were attending our religious schools. We knew that the "December Dilemma" — dealing with issues around Christmas and Hanukkah — could be challenging. However, teachers were not adequately prepared to handle questions relating to Christianity in a manner that would be sensitive to the student and, at the same time, provide a "teachable moment" for the rest of the class.
The reality today is that not only do we have a number of interfaith families in our congregations, but many of our families have relatives who are non-Jews. They come together for holiday and life-cycle celebrations, and yet they know little if anything about the meaning of these occasions within a religious context. This change in the composition of the extended family has made it necessary for educators to rethink the way to address questions relating to Jesus and Christianity. Do we merely respond to questions as they arise or do we find a place in our curriculums, at an age-appropriate level, to teach about the similarities and differences between these two great world religions?
At Congregation Beth El, in Sudbury, Massachusetts, we decided that the eleventh grade curriculum on Transformative Periods in Jewish History was the perfect place to include a unit on the Rise of Christianity. Students learned about the life and times of Jesus within the context of the Second Temple period. They discovered, by tracing the roots of Christianity, that its foundation was an outgrowth of Judaism. In twelfth grade, students had an opportunity to learn more about Christianity when they met with a minister and a priest from local churches for three sessions. Having already had some background in Christian theology and being well grounded in Judaism, they were then able to ask thoughtful, probing questions.
At the same time, when questions about Jesus or Christian beliefs arose in the lower grades, the teachers asked the rabbi to come into class to respond. Teachers did not feel comfortable with their own knowledge of Christianity. It soon became clear that it was important that the teaching staff be educated and sensitized so that they, too, could answer questions or respond to statements in a way that was sensitive to the student and preserved the integrity of both religions.
To help me create a training session for the staff I met with two close colleagues, Susan Murphy, Director of Religious Education at Our Lady of Fatima, and Rev. Avis Hoyt O'Connor, then Minister at the Sudbury United Methodist Church. We discussed what information our teachers needed to have and what was important for them to teach. This included:
Many of our teachers were surprised to learn the similarities that exist between these two religions.
Another important part of teacher training was learning how to determine the feelings and anxieties that may exist beneath questions. Was there something going on at home around religious observance? Was the question indirectly related to a non-Jewish family member and the role that person plays in the life of this child? In order to answer these and other questions, communication with the family is important and enables the teacher to be supportive of the child.
We decided that teaching about Jesus and Christianity should took place on an adult level, as well. The theme of our adult education programming for the year was the world's great religions. By bringing in scholars from the different faith traditions we began to learn more about their beliefs and religious practices. This dialogue became a point of entry for some non-Jewish spouses into the synagogue community.
Recently we revised our eighth grade curriculum to include a semester on comparative religion, with a major focus on Christianity. This is an age when students express a great deal of interest in other religions. They are ready to learn how Judaism views Jesus and his teachings. Not only do they have an opportunity to meet with local clergy, but in some instances they have also invited their peers from these congregations to join the discussion.
By expanding the scope of our religious school curriculum to include teachings on Jesus and Christianity we have not only provided our students with a very valuable knowledge base, we have also helped to break down stereotypes. Our students, teens and adults, have discovered how much we have in common, and this should not only benefit those who have relatives of different religions, but society as well.