Working with Jewish teenagers, I’ve seen it demonstrated that one very effective way to get them thinking deeply about their identity and the role that their religious values, beliefs and practices play in their daily lives, is to engage them in a comparative religion class. Whenever we begin such a course together, we always start by looking at the various reasons that are often heard for studying other religions. For example:
- To learn about another religion and come to better understand it.
- To explore the similarities and differences between our faith and the faith of others.
- To find common ground and, through understanding, build stronger relationships with people of other faiths.
All of these reasons are true, but the one that I find to be most true in terms of actual impact over a relatively short period of time is that we come to better understand and know ourselves.
And so, during this year’s course that I teach in our local Hebrew high school program one night a week, we recently came to end of our 4 week introduction to Islam. During this same period of time, the incredibly well-crafted TLC TV show, ‘All-American Muslim’ has been airing. A number of the students have been watching it, and it has provided not only a wonderful window into the lives of a diverse group of Muslims living in Dearborn, Michigan but, as we reflect on how questions of practice, observance, gender roles, interfaith relations, conversion, childbirth, and more, are part of the discourse of the families portrayed in the show, so the Jewish teens that I work with have found many of these topics to offer a powerful lens to look at their own lives and the diversity to be found in the Jewish community.
Our mini-unit culminated with a visit from a mother and daughter who live locally, to engage in a conversation about their own journey of faith. Mom is from Puerto Rico, and converted from Catholicism to Islam in 2000. Her daughter, raised as a Muslim, shared her own interfaith experiences with members of her family, the multiple identities of being both Muslim and Puerto Rican, exchanges she has had with students at school who understand or do not understand the co-existence of these identities, and the personal spiritual path she walks as she navigates life as an American teenager and a practicing Muslim.
While my students had many questions for our guests, our guests in turn had questions for our students. Why don’t your names sound Jewish? What is a Hebrew name and how is it used? Why is it that we say our culture is Puerto Rican and our religion is Islam, but being Jewish is both culture and religion? How do you deal with explaining Jewish holidays and taking holy days off school?
I sat back and listened to my own students provide incredibly articulate answers to these questions, even as they were thinking out loud and learning about the kinds of questions that those who see us as ‘other’ might ask; things that we might take for granted but yet cause us to reflect deeply on who we are and how we live our faith when we are asked the questions. In a brief 45 minutes, I saw my students articulate aspects of the meaning of their faith and identity in a way that two years of preparation for a bar or bat mitzvah could not achieve in the same way. At the end of our class, our guests joined us for the mid-evening break, to enjoy latkes and apple sauce with our students.
I am well aware that there has been a vicious campaign attacking ‘All-American Muslim’ in recent weeks. I wish those who attack from a place of ignorance and fear could have been present in my classroom last week. Our exposure to and interactions with each other strengthen the bonds between us, and strengthen our own individual sense of identity and faith.