What do we know about our neighbors and what do they know about us? We live in a diverse community with many different religions practiced in varying ways at home or in houses of worship. While I engage in religious dialogue with other clergy, and various groups visit my synagogue on a regular basis, I rarely get to engage young adults in real dialogue. On Jan. 12, however, I participated in an amazing religious dialogue at Hopewell Valley High School.
This was my second experience with a wonderful teacher, Robert Siris, who teaches several classes on world religions to 12th-graders. They study throughout the semester and then gather in sections for three hours to question, dialogue, and challenge the clergy. There were two groups of four clergy each; I was in a group with a Catholic deacon, a Presbyterian minister, and a Muslim imam. Over a period of several hours we looked at issues of heaven and hell, why we became clergy, how we learn from God, and whether Jews and Muslims have a place in heaven. The questions were serious, insightful, and challenging.
We all noted, with sadness but some amusement, that most of the students assumed that the four of us would argue and yell and might even be rude to one another. The students were particularly shocked that I, as a rabbi, and the imam, Ali, have been close friends for 20 years. They were even more amazed when the imam mentioned, without any fanfare, that two days after the 9/11 attacks, he was the main speaker at a service at my synagogue with hundreds in attendance. They seemed shocked that the same year, I was honored as Man of the Year in the Trenton Muslim community, for the outreach and community building I engaged in following the horrific events of 9/11.
The sad reality is that most of the students assume religions are engaged in adversarial relationships. Without classes like this, and dialogue with clergy, I believe that most students in other communities also see religions as “competitors” rather than partners on a journey.
I was impressed to see this level of thought and analysis in a high school program. These students were not merely “taking up space”; they were experiencing learning on a very high level. They were engaged by a teacher who clearly pushed himself and his students to open their minds to new vistas.
On Jan. 14, all the students visited our synagogue, a mosque, and a church. Following the visits, all of us received written feedback from the students. Much of it contained a significant amount of misinformation about Judaism. In a lovely letter, one student wrote:
“The last question I had involved the concept of death. It is my understanding that the Jewish faith does not believe in a ‘heaven.’ This made me wonder whether Jewish people believe in a human spirit. And if so, what do you think happens to this spirit after death?”
I wrote back to the student at length, about the Jewish view of reward and punishment, the neshama (soul) and the view that heaven and hell can be seen as real physical places — without being viewed as “real estate.” I believe that Jewish students are just as misinformed about Christians and Muslims as they are about us. Perhaps some of my answers will clarify some of these issues, and these students will share their new knowledge with their peers.
While it is true that we have enormous resources, like sites on the Internet, to gather data and information, I am certain that it is only through face-to-face dialogue that we really get to “know” the “other.” Programs like this affect these students for a lifetime. They open minds and stimulate self-evaluation. They inspire me to ask questions about my own views of Judaism and other religions that I might otherwise take for granted.
It is a measure of the program’s high quality that everyone was profoundly touched by the experience. This program builds community, opens dialogue, and is higher education in the best sense. Perhaps we can “export” this program to other school districts. I only know that I felt it was a joy and privilege to be a part of one of the best mornings of learning I’ve experienced — since the last time I visited Mr. Siris’s class.