Engaging Younger than Young Adult Jews

My kids are back in school (chances are, so are yours), and I have been reflecting on a comment my older son made earlier in the summer. I had picked him up at the end of day camp that he and his brother were attending in nearby Inwood park. Most of the daily programming occurred outside, but there were some days because of weather or simply as part of the program took place in the church across the park entrance. At the end of this day in particular, he shared that it felt weird being inside a church. I waited for any additional comments and then asked a couple of clarifying questions. In the ensuing discussion, he admitted that he was ” a little freaked out” by the number of Jesus figures inside the church and, in particular, a gory depiction of Jesus on a cross. I listened and validated his feelings, and I reassured him — according to our beliefs — that it is okay to be inside a church (he seemed to be expressing some question and concern about this).

As parents, we inevitably discover teachable moments and I am grateful for those that include deeper engagement with and understanding of other religions. Now that school is in session, I wonder what, if anything, is addressed in this regard in a Jewish community day school? The “church thing” — having been raised by my son who just began middle school — sparked within me this curricular curiosity as his question may also come up for his peers if it hasn’t already. Will it be addressed in a more educationally impactful and supported way in school rather than a one-off teachable moment provided to him by his parent? And if not, should it be? Synagogue committees delve into this and families can discuss, but I also wonder whether this should be part of a school curriculum?

I admit these musings come at a time when I think a lot about the activity and engagement my son gets on a weekly basis in our shul. He is no doubt very comfortable in our synagogue and has a growing understanding of what he sees, hears, and even says in daily tefillot or weekly Shabbat prayer space. But what about a church or a mosque? If he doesn’t know what he will find, or it will make him uncomfortable, then I want to reduce those barriers. Maybe he and his fellow students should devote some time in these formative years learning about the religious buildings and services that are down the street or a few blocks away. There is no need, yet, for a college-level Religion in Modern America course, but I hope that he and others will begin to encounter the studying and dialogue of the subject prior to high school.

With the start of the academic calendar year, I’m undertaking a variety of educational projects that include teaching a class at my synagogue’s Hebrew School and joining the faculty of a new’ish home-based learning program for immigrants from the former Soviet Union. As I’ll be teaching kids and adults, I am eager to explore the various encounters people have with our Jewish tradition and their understanding of other religions in the broader community.

About the Author
Rabbi Rafi Cohen is a graduate of JTS Rabbinical School and the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. He has previously served as Director of Jewish Student Life at CCNY Hillel and has taught in Jewish Day Schools as well as the congregations he served as assistant and senior rabbi. He is an alumnus of the ADL Glass Leadership Institute and a past participant of the Mussar Institute's Mussar for Millenials. Rafi is a rabbinic and educational consultant who loves helping individual students and families find meaning in their lives.
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