Newton's Interfaith educators model unity and COLLABORATION

Liz Shiro, Director of Temple Shalom’s Grades K-5 Education program.

For the last three years, I’ve been involved with the Interfaith Educators group in Newton. This group is an offshoot of the Newton Interfaith Clergy Association and is made up of a diverse group of religious educators from different faith traditions and backgrounds. We meet monthly and have informal discussions about what is happening in the faith communities where we work as educators. We learn together about faith formation and education in our respective settings and use our discussions and our learning to deepen the work we do in our own communities. It is deeply meaningful to sit with a diverse group of educators and discuss what is important to our communities and see how this is the same and different across religious organizations. Some topics we have covered are planning retreats, teen engagement, inclusion, and teaching faith and prayer.

A few weeks ago, John Boopalan, Minister for Community Life at First Baptist Church of Newton Centre asked if I would come and teach his students about Passover. I was honored to be asked and of course said yes. One of the many differences between Sunday school at most churches and Sunday school at synagogues like Temple Shalom is that no registration is required. I was told to plan a lesson for 2-15 kids ages 5-12 and teach the story of Passover. I had no idea what to expect. Having grown up in Sharon, Massachusetts, which at the time was 80% Jewish, and living my life immersed in Judaism - I have limited exposure to what non-Jewish students know about Judaism. I planned my lesson assuming the kids would already know something about Passover. I was very surprised that of the 5 students who showed up (in grades K, 1, 3, and 5), only one had been to a Seder (a specific type of Passover celebration), but she didn’t know what it was called and she remembered it based on learning about searching for the afikomen (a piece of Matzah that is hidden during the Seder that children play a game to find). One student had heard of Moses. They told me they didn’t know what Matzah was and had never seen the movie, Prince of Egypt. The students knew about Egypt and the Nile River.

I planned on reading a story (I had 5 to pick from) and organized a few educational activities. I started with one book, switched to another, and then finally decided to tell the story of Passover. I realized quickly that in one 45-minute lesson, the details of what happens at a Seder were probably not the most important part of Passover for someone who wasn’t Jewish. Instead, I shared the Biblical story and then we had fun recreating parts of the story with Legos (frogs and the parting of the sea) and two of the kids decorated dishes for saltwater (an item we use during the Seder).

I spent a meaningful morning with the kids at First Baptist Church. At the same time, I also learned a great deal about myself and my own faith community. From this experience, it was clear to me just how many assumptions I make about how much people who are not Jewish know or don’t know about Judaism. It reminded me of how important it is to educate our own community so we can then educate others outside of our community about who we are and what we believe. This year, as the Jewish community has experienced in increase in anti-Semitism, I now understand more fully how participating in interfaith dialogue is so important. Good interfaith dialogue asks us to examine how we perceive those of other faiths, put aside our presumptions and stereotypes, and then work to establish commonalities and connection. Often, we learn that those we perceive to be different from us, are not really different at all. We may express our religion in different ways, but religion, faith, tradition, and community are important to everyone. I feel proud and honored to be a part of a group of educators who have our own interfaith discussions and look forward to continuing to find ways for all of us to learn from each other as we celebrate our differences and uncover what we have in common.