Teaching Religion and Cultural Identity

Religion is one of the most powerful social and cultural forces in human history. Despite being integral to human culture and being found everywhere, it remains one of the least understood areas of life. Teaching about religion and religious cultures, allows us to raise moral, intellectual and spiritual children.  Unfortunately there is a deeply ingrained assumption that studying religion means being religious.

It has wreaked havoc and devastating carnage throughout history and all around the world, but religion is also a source of profound comfort and good. Found everywhere, religion and cultural identity are undeniably entwined.

Secular Jews often classify their Jewish identity in cultural terms. Jewish cultural expression is a critical path to ensure continuity of our heritage. Our cultural identity is the feeling of belonging to a group, our connection to social values and beliefs, and is part of a person’s self-perception. It allows us to identify with other people who feel the same way or have similar backgrounds.

Cultural identity is not just religious in nature. It can also be related to nationality, ethnicity, social class, generation, locality or any kind of social group that has its own distinct culture. Yet when we teach religion, the overlap is so great that we are also teaching about culture.

What is it about cultural heritage that draws people? As our world grows ever more modern, it is hard for some not to see our Jewish traditions as archaic and no longer relevant.  For those Jews who don’t follow orthodox practices, exploring our Jewish cultural heritage offers the benefits of enabling them to remain connected to their Judaism.

Everybody needs to belong to something, whether it is to a religion, a team, or the local country club. As much as we need to know our history and our roots, even today we all have an inherent desire to feel like we are part of something. Being a member of a community, fills this role. Another benefit is the communal support. When we identify strongly with our heritage, we are more likely to help out others in our community. Like the domino effect, helping our community, opens the door to giving in the wider community.

We need to teach our children about our religion. Judaism is our history and is their heritage. By teaching them our laws and customs, it gives our children  better tools to understand previous generations and the history of where we come from.

Family stories can be a relevant resource for historical research. Stories passed down provide a uniquely personal insight into our past. As our children trace their family’s journey, they can see where they came from and learn how these Jewish traditions affected their lives. We are giving them the knowledge to consider which elements of our shared Jewish cultural history they themselves would like to pass on.

The traumas ingrained within our Jewish history are also valuable lessons as we enable our children to cope in the modern world. Youth are more resilient to difficult times when they know their families’ histories. Knowing that members of their family have suffered hardships and overcome them is a motivator for our teenagers, encouraging them through hard times of their own.

Teaching and understanding religion are critical elements in dealing with a world that each year is growing more religiously and culturally pluralistic. We ourselves grow more exposed to differing world views and religious value systems. The world is more dependent on its people with different societies and cultures finding ways to live and work together for the survival of our planet and our species.

With brachot, mitzvot, Shabbat, Jewish holidays, traditions, customs and history, I believe we should teach our children everything so that they are better informed. Then it is up to them what elements of their Jewish heritage they choose to accept or reject. That is better than ignorance. The crucial thing is to give them the knowledge in the first place. Our culture is no less important than our observance and the marriage of both is the path to continuing strength.

About the Author
Abi Taylor-Abt is an outstanding Jewish Educator and Curriculum Developer who has worked in the field of Jewish Primary and Secondary Educational Curriculum Development for over twenty years. She is the author of Lessons in Jewish Learning - a grab and go curriculum for communities and Jewish schools. Originally from London, Abi spent time living in Israel, South Africa, England and the United States. After working in Boise, Idaho, Abi spent 5 years in Israel for the second time whilst her children served in the army. She is currently Director of Education for Yachad a combined educational endeavour between the conservative congregation of Beth Shalom and the reform community of Temple Emanu-El in Michigan, USA. A 2018 recipient of the Klein/Grinspoon Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, Abi is also awaiting the video version of her recent ELI Talk Detroit Speaker Fellowship.