What is the place of teaching about other world religions in a Jewish educational curriculum for adolescents? This article explores a course in world religions that has been taught at the Genesis Program at Brandeis University since 2001. Based on a participant observational study during 2002 and 2012, the author traces how the teachers construct goals and implement plans that include site visits to places of worship of the religions they are studying. The questions raised and the struggles of students to make sense of Judaism in the context of world religions is the backdrop for considering both why and how other Jewish educators might thoughtfully include the study of other religions as part of their Jewish education for adolescents.
Conclusion: What Can We Learn From This Study?
I undertook this study of the world religions course at the Genesis Program with other Jewish educators in mind. While there are some features of Genesis that make it a distinctive context, I sought to discover if there are lessons that might inform other educators who are considering this move. In drawing these, I looked across the two iterations of this course and asked what over time remained true of this course even when educators and approaches changed. On that basis I propose these as guideposts for other educators.
Learning about Other Religions Has Strong Appeal to Some Jewish Adolescents
In both iterations of the course I was struck by how intensely interested these students were in the questions raised. But these were the students who selected Genesis, and within this program, this particular course. When in 2002 we asked the students what drew them to the course, the most common response was to understand the people they knew well who practiced other religions.
Questions Rather Than Answers Elicit Greater Interest
These students were not waiting to receive answers. Rather, they wanted to raise their questions and discuss those with their peers and teachers. They loved the freedom to ask without having to worry that would lead to trouble. But they needed adult reassurance that indeed all questions were welcome.
The Experiential Components Were Essential to Their Learning
Prothero (2007) and Gillis (2011) advocate teaching for increased religious literacy and greater cognitive understanding of the fundamentals of other religions. But these students showed a limited interest in absorbing information in the abstract. When, however, they were on their site visits, there was a visible rise in their energy level and their minds opened to take in what they were experiencing. Sharing those experiences leaves me advocating for these more experiential encounters with the sites of other religious practices. Yet such visits need to be carefully prepared and consistently followed up with times for reflection.
Meeting Other People and Hearing Their Life Stories Left Strong Impressions
Both iterations of this course invited interesting people from other faith communities to tell their life stories. I could see the power of those experiences. Hearing personal narratives—especially when interviewing others—opened the gates of curiosity and learning.
Educators Need to Have Clear Learning Goals That Guide Their Teaching
There is so much one can potentially teach about other religions. A short course could be overloaded with too much information. Both sets of Genesis educators—while pursuing different learning goals—were clear in setting out those goals and consistently pursuing them. Doing so promoted good learning. Even though each week students were considering different questions and learning about different religious practices, the course's direction remained consistent throughout.
Students Can Learn More about Judaism Even While Focused on Learning about Other Religions
Students often drew comparisons between what they saw in their site visits and what they have experienced in Jewish contexts. They were like travelers to a foreign land who marvel that other people speak different languages. Yet they were learning more about their native tongue by seeing how it compares and differs from those foreign tongues. At times I wished those differences could be sharpened, but this journey abroad helped them to see more clearly the contours of the faith in which they had they had been raised.
This is not a course that will appeal to all. Many Jews prefer to view Judaism in its own right and not as one of the world religions. But for teachers and students for whom questions of faith are alluring and for whom the insights of other communities of faith seem helpful for their own spiritual paths, the educational option of learning as Jews about and from other world religions can prove compelling. While this study of the Genesis Program is primarily suggestive and needs to be followed by more rigorous investigation of the impact of these courses on the participating students, I hope its presentation will invite more thoughtful discussions of how to prepare our students to live as Jews in a world in which crossing religious boundaries has become a regular part of their lives.