Beyond the Doubt Box: Voices from the Field Reflect on Engaging in GodTalk

Ilisa Cappell

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School 

Ilisa Cappell is associate director of the Schechter Day School Network. She holds an MA (’07) in Jewish Education from the Davidson School.
and is an alumna of the Day School Leadership Training Institute.

It has been more than a decade, and I still remember looking around the room in my JTS graduate course on Translating Jewish Theology into Educational Settings, taught by Professors Steve Brown and Neil Gillman, hoping I was not alone. I wondered if others felt the same fear and shock that was brewing inside me. Our professor started talking about God; worse yet: he wanted me to start talking about God. I panicked. I was scared. I was very, very uncomfortable, and I looked for the closest exit. I remember thinking to myself, “Jews don’t talk about God.’” It seemed like a Christian thing to do.

Why is talking about God important? According to Rabbi Aryeh Ben David, founder of Ayeka, the answer is obvious. He told me that it is necessary because “that is the core of Judaism. Judaism begins with listening to God’s voice. It is about wrestling with God.” As much as we cannot seem to get away from God in Judaism (in the Bible, in lifecycle events), it is uncomfortable for Jews to talk about God. Christians love to talk about God, and Jews talk about mitzvot and social action. Rabbi Ben David pressed further saying, “Emunah [truth] and belief are not things that are scientific and provable. We just don’t have answers and that is uncomfortable, and that makes us feel childish and insecure. It is personal and vulnerable.”

The good news is that we don’t have to feel uncomfortable because we don’t have answers, and the even better news is that, while we as adults might have this hang-up about talking about God, the students in our classrooms might feel a lot more comfortable if we start having these conversations early on. This is what educator Jesse Feigenbaum at Temple Beth Shalom Children’s Center in Needham, Massachusetts, is doing. She embarked on a project with her students to explore their interests, ideas, and questions about God. The guiding question for this project was “How do you investigate something that you cannot hold, touch, or even see?” She started with the premise that young children actively work to make sense of the world, including their own personal beliefs. Together, her students created a book that captured their journey over the year as they investigated their theories about God. They created a siddur and titled it Siddur: A Child’s First Conversation with God. In the introduction Feigenbaum writes, “As we grow and develop in our lives, our Jewish identity and ideas about God will grow with us. Come along for a child’s first conversation with God.”

At four years old, these children are not self-conscious about their beliefs. They wonder where God lives: “God might live in us; God might live in the yellow daisies; God might live where we find God’s name.”They think about opportunities to praise God: “I can praise God by being grateful for the food we eat.” We cannot expect that what we believe to be true when we are 4 will be true when we are 14 or 24, but I love that Jesse laid a foundation for the children to enter into a relationship with God. Her classroom is one where children question, wonder, and explore. It is safe, and there is no right or wrong.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rabbi Abby Sosland is working with high school students as spiritual advisor at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester. It was clear two minutes into my conversation with Abby that she is obsessed with talking about God. I mean that in a good way. She lives and breathes these conversations, ideas, and questions every day in her own life. She cannot imagine not talking about God. Her challenge is how to articulate and share her experiences in a way that is helpful for other educators. Her main goal with her students is to ask the questions. She doesn’t feel pressure to teach something specific about God. She wants to make the learning relevant, and she uses Jewish text as an anchor.

Most recently, in her Messianism and Redemption in Jewish Life course, her students looked at Rambam’s 13 principles of faith and questioned, “Is believing in God a mitzvah? How could it be a commandment?” In her Tanakh class, they studied Nadav and Avihu and discussed how we might understand a God who seems to act so harshly. For Rabbi Sosland, almost every text becomes an opportunity to enter into this conversation.

Rabbi Sosland reflects on why she talks about God and what the connection is to spirituality, as the two are not the same. She said,“The word God suggests one way to get out of ourselves. One particular way, for some, of getting outside oneself is spiritual, but not necessarily around God—it could mean community. God, as described in the Bible or the prayer book, is not necessarily spiritual for everyone, but we have to figure out what to do with God, because this is the language our people use for getting outside of ourselves. You will be stuck if this is something you can't work with.” Abby does not want her students to feel stuck. She wants them to be engaged, and she models this in her life. She brings her authentic self into the classroom.

Both Abby and Jesse talk about God in their personal lives; it is second nature to them. But it is not second nature for many of us, not even for many Jewish educators. I relate best with the educators who tell me that talking about God is just not comfortable for them. It brought me right back to my graduate class. We need to create multiple entry points that encourage our teachers and our students to engage. Strategies, lesson plans, and resources for having these conversations abound, but if we do not explore our own thoughts and beliefs, it is like having a great recipe without any ingredients with which to prepare the food.

Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is scary. We cannot do this work alone. We must help to create a culture in our schools and communities that supports and nurtures a safe space within which we can explore our beliefs, doubts, fears, and hopes. We need to ask: “What needs to be true about the culture of our schools to ensure that we are creating spaces that support this work?” Here are some possible answers to that question:

  1. We need to acknowledge that this is hard work. Hard work involves our being vulnerable, dedicating the time and space for reflection and cultivation of our spiritual selves, struggling and sitting with the discomfort of not having all the answers.
  2. We need to make it safe for different beliefs about God to coexist.
  3. We need to legitimate our own spiritual journeys. If we attempt to have conversations with children about God without having engaged in this work ourselves, we lose out and so do our students.
  4. We must be willing to be vulnerable and uncomfortable, and we must be open to sitting with that feeling in the service of our students.
  5. We must have realistic expectations. Teachers are not responsible for having all the answers. Struggling with the questions, authentically modeling and engaging with ideas, and being willing to listen, record, and mirror back without the pressure to answer is not just okay, it is an approach that allows for the development of a child’s soul.

In his recent ELI on Air conversation “Talking about God” with Rabbi Dan Ain, Rabbi Shai Held, Rosh Yeshiva and chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar, reflected on the challenge of talking about God. He suggested we adopt the “posture of a beginner,” by which he means “a sense of total openness, an ability to be radically surprised by the world, by God, by text, by ideas, by people”; but also, to be a beginner “is to want to work hard to grow.”

If we want to develop a strong connection with Judaism, we need to work hard. I hope we can challenge ourselves to see professional development focused on our spiritual selves as part of our explicit curriculum. I hope we can invite the parents in our schools into these conversations and develop a support network for this work, while strengthening the connection between home and school. As we discuss 21st-century learning in our Jewish day schools, let us think about how the five Cs for 21st-century learning—connection, critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration—can be used to inform and lay the groundwork for exploring our relationship with God. I am grateful to have had professors who encouraged me to explore my own beliefs, but that was only the beginning. Let us start from within, dedicate time and space, talk with one another, and embrace the opportunities that will follow—opportunities to help nourish within our students a strong and engaged connection with our God and Judaism.

Ilisa Cappell is associate director of the Schechter Day School Network. She holds an MA (’07) in Jewish Education from the Davidson School, and served as the head of school at the El Paso Jewish Academy in Texas for six years. Ms. Cappell is a current EdD student at The Davidson School, and is an alumna of the Davidson School’s Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI), cohort 4.