Teaching the lesson of faith(s)

Interfaith families flock to Newton Jewish school

By Elise Kigner

Advocate Staff


While some Jewish institutions are still struggling to figure out how to attract interfaith families, the Sunday School for Jewish Studies gets them in droves.

Leaders at the Newton school estimate at least 80 percent of the 160 students come from interfaith families. There are children with a parent who converted to Judaism, and those who have a parent who isn’t Jewish. Almost all celebrate Christmas, said Dori Stern, the school’s education director.

Partly, the high numbers are due to the school’s structure. As it’s not affiliated with a synagogue, it draws many families without shul membership. Classes meet one day a week for two hours, as compared with most shul religious schools that meet two or three times a week.

But it is also largely due to the staff of the K-7 school, who make it a point not to “talk down” to interfaith families, Stern said.

“I am a child of survivors and their version of Judaism was ‘us vs. them,’ a lot of fear,” she said.

Stern said she has always been determined to be different.

“From the bottom of my heart, this place is opening and welcoming and accepting,” she said.

The school was founded after World War II by Harvard University professors who were not comfortable with synagogues. Since the 1980s it has been drawing high numbers of interfaith families.

Even so, the curriculum hasn’t changed. Students study Hebrew, holidays, blessings, Torah and culture.

Students have the option of studying for a b’nai mitzvah. Some of the students lead services in a synagogue, but most have them in alternative venues, everywhere from backyards to restaurants to conference centers.

In addition to offering classes, which meet at the Oak Hill Middle School in Newton, the school organizes free High Holiday services. The services typically draw 500 people to a Newton public school. Twice a year, students and their families also go to Shabbat services in a family’s homes.

Michelle Andler a seventh grade Sunday School teacher, said many of her students don’t go to synagogue, light candles on Shabbat, or celebrate the holidays in a traditional way.

“I try to give them an experience that is fun and traditional,” she said.

In the fall, they build sukkot out of graham crackers and candy, and then shake the lulav and etrog in the school’s sukkah.

In addition to celebrating holidays, her students study the Holocaust, Jewish immigration around the turn of the century, and comparative religion.

While most of the students come from interfaith families, she said their practice of other religions doesn’t come up much.

“The kids know they’re at the Jewish Sunday School, and they put their Jewish hats on,” said Andler, who also teaches fifth grade at MetroWest Jewish Day School in Framingham.

From time to time, though, they have questions about how Judaism may or may not jibe with other religions.

For example, Andler recalled giving a lesson on Passover. One student asked if that was the same as Jesus’ Last Supper.

“I said, ‘There are a lot of similarities, and you have to remember that we as Jews don’t necessarily use the words Old and New Testament, because we don’t believe in the New Testament, but it’s the same first chapter of the book,’” she recalled.

Students have also asked her whether Jesus was the son of Gd. For that question, Andler didn’t have an answer. She told her students to talk to their parents.

While it can be challenging to grow up with two religions that are mutually excusive, Andler said she tries to teach the students that religions have many similarities and hold the same basic values.

“I hope it makes it easier for them to peace their puzzle together,” she said.

She also tries to help them understand how Judaism fits with their secular world. Andler recalled that after the recent massacre in Newtown, Conn., they said, “The shooter was crazy, just like Hitler.’”

“It was exciting for me to see they were making these connections,” she said, “and understanding that Judaism does exist outside of 9:45 and 12 on Sunday mornings.”

Marjie McDaniel said she and her husband Eamon, who isn’t Jewish, explored joining a local Reform temple when their kids were young.

The Natick couple was put off, however, when they learned there were restrictions on how much a non-Jewish spouse could participate in services. They also weren’t interested in sending their kids, Zack and Eric, to a three-day-a-week school, and getting involved in activities such as a sisterhood or brotherhood.

The Sunday School, however, felt right. It was a place where their kids could get a Jewish education, without them joining a temple.

And the Sunday School services feel comfortable for her husband.

“He’s with every other spouse who may not know the different parts of the service, or the holidays we’re celebrating,” she said.

Visit sundayschoolforjewishstudies.org for more information.



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