Cry for Change: With Improved Catholic Teachings on Judaism, Some Jewish Leaders Seek Hebrew School Overhaul

By Michael Paulson


By Michael Paulson

Reprinted with permission from the Sunday, April 8, 2001 edition of The Boston Globe. Visit the Boston Globe’s website at

CHELMSFORD – Today is the first day of Passover, so religious education teacher Gail Irish spent some time last week reminding her sixth-grade class about the ritual dinner called a Seder.

Nothing unusual about that, except that her students are all Catholic.

A few towns away, in Belmont, Toby Koritsky has also been preparing her students for the holidays.

But here, the scene is more predictable: The classroom of Jewish youngsters is learning about Passover rituals. There is no discussion of Christianity, even though today is Palm Sunday, the start of the holiest week of the Christian calendar.

”I don’t want children to feel that isn’t important, but they understand that when they’re here, they’re learning about being Jewish,” she said.

Over the last several decades, the Catholic Church has made extraordinary changes in the way it talks about Jews and Judaism. The church that once taught that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus now goes out of its way to describe Jesus as a Jew, the Last Supper as a Passover Seder, and to blame the crucifixion on the politics of Rome.

At the same time, Jewish educators have not significantly changed how they talk about Christians. The Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust form the basic trinity of Jewish teaching about Christianity in Sunday and Hebrew schools.

There are good reasons for the difference: Catholics changed their teaching about Jews only after Christian anti-Semitism helped fuel the slaughter of 6 million Jews in World War II. It is also impossible to explain Christian history, theology, or scriptures without discussing Jews.

But some prominent Jewish leaders are beginning to question whether they, like their Catholic counterparts, need to overhaul the way they teach their children.

”It is high time for us to reexamine our textbooks to make sure that we are presenting a portrayal of Christian-Jewish relations that is historically accurate and appropriately balanced,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. ”In a world where Jews interact with Christians all the time, a perverted sense that all Christians do all day long is attack and destroy Jews is not going to foster the kind of intergroup relations that one would like to see.”

The cry for change has been voiced the loudest by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, head of the Reform movement, the largest denomination of American Jews.

”We have utterly failed in conveying to our young people the revolutionary changes that have taken place in the church since the Second Vatican Council,” Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said at Assumption College in Worcester last year. ”Too often, we teach nothing at all about other religious traditions to our children, and what we do teach on Catholicism is likely to focus on the Inquisition and the Crusades. This is a moral failure of the first order.”

The notion is gaining currency among Jewish leaders. Last fall a national group of rabbis and community leaders issued a groundbreaking statement, ”Dabru Emet,” declaring that in the wake of dramatic changes in Christian attitudes toward Jews since World War II, ”We believe it is time for Jews to learn about the efforts of Christians to honor Judaism.”

But this viewpoint has not yet trickled down.

New Directions, an innovative training program for Catholic and Jewish religious educators launched by the Archdiocese of Boston and the Anti-Defamation League, has been extremely successful in reaching Catholics. Cardinal Bernard F. Law made it mandatory for religious education teachers, and it is expanding to parochial schools, college campus ministers, and deacons.

But, thus far, only a handful of synagogues have agreed to allow their teachers to take part.

”It’s been a harder nut to crack,” said Diane Kolb of the Anti-Defamation League, who said her organization is trying to come up with a new strategy for approaching Jewish school teachers. ”Jews have a multiplicity of issues they’re concerned with – their own existence on this earth – so lots of times we get resistance because this is not a priority.”

The reasons are many.

For Jewish educators, talking about Christianity is not obligatory, and many argue that after introducing their students to the basics of Judaism and teaching them Hebrew, they don’t have time for other subjects.

Jewish students also often spend fewer years in religious education than Catholics–the majority of Jewish children end their formal religious education with a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony at age 13, while most Catholic youngsters continue through confirmation at around age 16.

There’s also a major structural difference between Judaism and Catholicism. When Law decided he wanted to change what religious school teachers were saying, every religious school teacher complied. Judaism has no similar power structure, which means every religious school can decide how it wants to teach its children.

And some say the topic of how to present Christianity is problematic because many Jewish educators do not want to encourage interfaith marriages.

Some educators argue that American Jews get enough exposure to Christianity by living in a predominantly Christian country. Students interviewed pointed out repeatedly that they had friends of other faiths, and in some cases, because of interfaith marriages, relatives of other faiths, too.

”It’s just out there – in the public schools, through television, through music,” said Monica Weinstein, education director at Temple Isaiah in Lexington.

And Rabbi Shoshana M. Perry of Congregation Shalom in Chelmsford said, ”Jews are surrounded by Christians – it pervades society, and my kids are all the time experiencing issues of Christianity.”

Others say it’s just a matter of priorities.

”We have enough of a challenge teaching our kids about their own faith,” said Marjorie Berkowitz, director of Prozdor, a religious education program for high-school age Jews at Hebrew College in Brookline. Hebrew College, like some synagogues, offers a comparative religion elective for students who continue studying Judaism in their teenage years.

“The theory has been, and I’m not sure this is changing, that we want our kids to be really grounded in what their Jewish identity is before we start exploring our neighbors,” said Aleza Beauvais, education director for Temple Israel in Boston, which offers a comparative religion course for eighth-graders.

Jewish students are not crying out for more discussion of modern Christianity.

”I really didn’t know much about it until last year, when in English class we learned about Christianity as a basis for references in literature,” said Daniel Hoffman, 15, of Brookline, a student at the New Jewish High School. ”I think that where I am now is good – I learned most of what there is in terms of basic history, and anything more would be getting into the nitty-gritty details, which is not really necessary to get through life.”

”I feel like they’ve stressed in every way that Christians are not the enemy,” said Shanna Yarmovsky, 16, of Lexington, a junior at Lexington High School who learns about religion at Temple Isaiah, but also from her Christian friends.

Reinventing religious education is a difficult challenge for any faith. Most religious education for Jews and Catholics is done not by professional teachers, but by volunteers, frequently parents, who often must be pressed to teach.

Catholics have been rethinking their teaching about Judaism since 1965, when the Second Vatican Council rejected two longstanding themes of anti-Semitism: the notion that Judaism had been replaced by Christianity, and the accusation that Jews are responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.

The impact began immediately–Catholics stopped praying on Good Friday for the conversion of ”perfidious Jews,” for example. But the changes continue today, as Catholic educators continue to refine how they describe the Jewish community at the time of Jesus, and to struggle with how to understand texts such as the Gospel of John, which is read every Good Friday and is often seen as anti-Semitic.

”We’re dismantling misunderstandings that go back centuries,” said Celia M. Sirois, the codirector of the New Directions program. ”This is not an exercise in political correctness, but in justice. In justice, we must represent the other correctly and responsibly, and a great deal of damage was done when care was not taken to do that.”

© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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