In 1913 a young Jewish student sent a most disturbing letter to his parents about his intentions to convert to Christianity. In this letter, the student, Franz Rosenzweig, expressed his belief in G-d and at the same time related that he was desperately searching for ways to feed his spiritual soul. His parents lived a typical German Jewish lifestyle that included full membership in the local kehillah and temple attendance three times a year. However, the Jewish education that his parents provided left young Franz hungry and frustrated, and this painful letter describes his genuine search for spiritual sustenance.
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Faith is the most elusive quality to inculcate, the hardest to measure. Yet at some level, everything Jewish day schools seek to achieve depends upon it. The sense of belonging and connection that is fundamental to Jewish identity resides, at heart, in a sense of emunah, of trust and belief in something larger than ourselves. This issue considers factors that nourish Jewish faith of different kinds.
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Many years ago I had a conversation with a fellow Judaic studies teacher that touched on the topic of nurturing faith. She had asked me for some teaching advice and rabbinic sources with which to teach her Tanakh classes. As we were discussing our respective teaching styles, she declared that she felt that it was her mission as a Judaic studies teacher to instill in her students a belief in G-d and in the divinity of the Torah. I did not respond but her comment troubled me for some time afterwards as I considered her words.
High school religious educators face a population whose spiritual development is very much in flux. The high school years, for some students, are the nadir of religious behavior and spiritual receptivity. Our project “Religious Understanding in Adolescent Children” (RUACH), generously supported by the AVI CHAI Foundation, as well as years of experience as psychologists and educators in Jewish schools and communities, has helped us appreciate the nature of adolescent spirituality. A better understanding of adolescent spirituality is particularly important in light of reports that, relative to other religions, American Jewish adolescents ranked lowest in religious vitality and the importance of their religion’s spirituality to their identities.
At the open house for prospective kindergarten families at a pluralistic community day school, a young father asked, “Can you guarantee that my daughter will come out Orthodox at the end of her nine years here? This is very important to my family.” His anxiety is understandable. This young father felt that his daughter’s exposure to multiple expressions of Judaism threatened his family’s religious identity. With so many models of Judaism expressed within the school, something outside of his family’s practice may have a significant impact on his four-year old daughter’s Jewish identity. This article explores the diversity of religious beliefs and practices among community day school teachers and suggests ways that this diversity can support the growth of our students’ religious identity.
Children explore ideas and ask questions differently as they move through childhood. This is a maxim that we take to be self-evident when it comes to academic subjects such as math and writing, and educators adjust what they teach and the methods they use accordingly.
In a community formed by anything less than 100% like-minded people, the outcome of tefillah betzibur (communal prayer) is a polite, well-intentioned tangle of different customs, divergent expectations, decidedly real impediments of faith, and a paradoxical hope that everybody in the room will be able to balance equal measures of both individuality and belonging. In the larger Jewish community this is mitigated by a variety of synagogue choices: Reform, Chabad, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, or no synagogue at all. Even if a community Jewish day school offers a variety of prayer modalities, however inclusive of the panoply of Jewish expression, the school setting does not allow for the central choice which makes “adult” synagogues work: the choice to attend or not attend. The high hurdle of requirement is all the more intimidating when it is considered with the other significant challenges of a school’s tefillah program.
Jews are very proud of their support of diversity. Chests swell when remembering Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, who marched with Martin Luther King. We publish books about our rescue of Jews from the former USSR, Yemen, Iran or Ethiopia. We love Jewish basketball players, Jews from China or from the “lost” Lemba tribes of Zimbabwe.
We live in an age that is thirsty for meaning, and perhaps our greatest challenge as educators is to transmit a sense of meaning to our students. But how can we effectively nurture faith? My sense is that the task has become a cerebral affair, instead of the experience it is meant to be, and that the solution lies not in trying to convince our students of anything, but rather in sharing meaningful, joy-filled Jewish experiences with them.
There are so many ways for us to become more knowledgeable and skillful in nurturing the spiritual lives of children within the community day school environment. In the following reflections I focus mostly on a few of the challenges and opportunities of the middle and high school years.
Jeremy graduates from public high school after attending the local community day school that ends at 8th grade. He enters college at a large state university and takes a course in comparative religion. His roommate, Partha, is a smart, friendly young man from an Indian Hindu background. The two have thoughtful discussions late into the night. Jeremy finds himself wondering, “Partha is a great, ethical guy. Why was I taught that all the stuff he believes in is idolatry? Why isn’t his religion as valid as Judaism?” He takes more courses in eastern religious thought and joins a Buddhist meditation group.
Jewish education today is mainly concerned with the transmission of knowledge, the development of ritual skills, the formation and strengthening of Jewish identity and the affirmation of values. It deals little with the nature of religious experience, the development of religious growth, or the field of spirituality in general. It has found this area of religious education difficult to promote in a modem secular society with teachers and parents ambivalent about their own religiosity, let alone about transmitting it to others.
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