Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School
Alvan Kaunfer received a doctoral degree in Jewish Education and his ordination at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He is a Tanakh educator consultant for the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks project of The Davidson School.
Jewish educators might feel intimidated about talking about God with colleagues and students because models and resources for that conversation are lacking. I would like to offer a few examples from my own experience—from the realms of pre-service teacher education, from in-service professional development, and from student learning, that I hope will be helpful in providing such models.
I had the opportunity to teach the “Translating Jewish Theology into Educational Settings” course for several years, following Professors Steven M. Brown and Neil Gillman, who developed the course and taught it for more than12 years. From that course, here are a few examples of triggers to theological thinking that gave students the opportunity to grapple with their own beliefs about God:
During the past several years, I have coordinated and taught in a professional development program for complementary religious school staffs in the Boston area, through Hebrew College. One year is spent on the content and pedagogy of tefillah, with one session devoted to the issue of discussing God with their own students. After brainstorming names, descriptions, and epithets for God, I put up signs around the room with several of the names for God, in Hebrew and English. These included Creator, King-Sovereign, Rock, Life of the World. I then asked the teachers to stand next to the name to which they feel best able to relate, and to tell us why they felt affinity for the name they had chosen. The session ended with the teachers developing lesson plans to teach and discuss God with their own students. In end-of-year evaluations, that particular session was always mentioned as one of the most valuable, because it gave teachers a chance to articulate their beliefs and feelings about God.
If we believe that teachers and educators need to clarify their own theology before feeling a level of comfort in teaching about God to their own students, those few examples suggest how we can foster serious conversations about personal beliefs.
The following are a few resources and examples which could provide opportunities to discuss God with younger students:
We know that most opportunities for discussions about God come not as a separate subject, but during lessons on Bible, prayer, or holidays. With this in mind, here are two examples from Bible teaching:
One last practical resource: A number of years ago, Harold Kushner wrote a brief article called “The Idea of God in the Jewish Classroom” (Reconstructionism, Oct. 1984). There he argues that in teaching children, we should not ask “Where is God?”—producing answers like “Everywhere" that might be disturbing to some young children—but “When is God?” which would evoke answers like “When my cut heals,” or “When I love my parents.” One teacher has suggested expanding this question into “I feel God when . . . ,” “I hear God when . . . ,” “I see God when . . . .” This approach in itself can open doors to discussing God with children.
Finally, I want to suggest one challenge in teaching about God with children: I think we have not done enough to find ways for children to confront and discuss “nontraditional” concepts of God. To many children God is still imagined as an old man in heaven, or even in a more abstract way, as a Being that controls the universe from without. How might we challenge students to consider a different kind of concept, such as God being “the essence of all existence”? I leave that challenge to you.
We have indeed come a long way in engaging educators and students in serious conversations about God and personal beliefs, yet there is still much more to do.
Rabbi Alvan Kaunfer is a graduate of Brandeis University and Teachers’ College, Columbia University; he was ordained (’73) and received a doctoral degree in Jewish Education (’89) at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He is rabbi emeritus at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, Rhode Island, where he served for 25 years, and oversaw educational programming. Rabbi Kaunfer was also the founding director of the Alperin Schechter Day School in Providence. He has taught courses in Jewish Education at The Davidson School and at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He has published articles on education and Midrash in several books and professional journals. Rabbi Kaunfer is a Tanakh educator consultant for the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project at The Davidson School, and director of the Congregational Education Initiative at Hebrew College.