Jewish educators seek information on Christianity

Archdiocese of Boston, ADL looking to test interest level

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / February 11, 2008

NEWTON - The library walls are lined with books about Judaism and Israel, but the dozen or so Jewish day school and Hebrew School teachers gathered around the table have copies of the New Testament at their elbows and Jesus on the brain.

Over the course of two hours, they ask questions that are simultaneously basic and profound: How can Christians say they believe in one God but also a Trinity? What exactly is salvation? If Jesus hadn't been crucified, would Christianity still be a religion? And are newborn babies really tainted by something called original sin?

The session is a reversal of the 16-year-old New Directions program, unique to Eastern Massachusetts, that has been training Catholic school and religious education teachers about Judaism, in the hopes of countering centuries of Christian anti-Semitism.

Now, after years of one-way education, the sponsors of the program - the Archdiocese of Boston and the Anti-Defamation League - are testing the possibility that Jewish teachers would be interested in, and could benefit from, knowing something about Christianity.

Previous attempts at engaging Jewish educators in learning about Christianity have failed. But interest in Christianity among Jewish educators has been growing in part for one simple reason: the high rate of interfaith marriages. Many Jewish educators now teach children who have a Christian parent or grandparents.

"In the last 10 years, we've seen the populations in our Jewish schools become more diverse," said Daniel J. Margolis, the executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Boston. "We should try to educate our educators, so they feel more comfortable when these issues arise normally in the classroom."

The world's largest faith is often mentioned in Jewish schools largely in negative contexts - the Crusades and the Holocaust. But the advocates of the New Directions program are arguing that Jewish teachers should be able to answer questions about Christianity accurately and respectfully both for moral reasons - because it's the right thing to do - and practical ones - because many children in Jewish schools have Christian relatives, and most live in predominantly Christian communities.

"It's quite startling to see how little Jews know about Christianity, and I think the sense is there has not been much desire to learn," said Celia Sirois, the Catholic educator who, with Naomi Towvin, a Jewish educator, runs the program. "They've been very concerned that Catholics confront their own biases about Jews, and with good reasons, because those biases have been lethal."

Jewish officials offer an identical analysis.

"What has struck me, and I include myself in this, is how little Jews know about Christianity," said Diane Rosenbaum, the senior associate director of the Anti-Defamation League's New England region. "As Jewish educators, it is important to know about other traditions so you can teach about them with the same respect you want Judaism taught with."

The decision to test a new program was sparked last year, when a local Catholic priest, speaking at an interfaith awards ceremony, suggested that maybe it was time for Jews to address their perceptions of Christianity.

"There is a corresponding history - not without reason - of mistrust and misunderstanding by Jews toward Christians and Christianity," said the priest, the Rev. David C. Michael, associate director for interreligious relations at the Archdiocese of Boston. "And we look forward to the day when Jewish religious educators will also participate in the New Directions program so that, when they speak of Christianity in their classrooms, they will also be able to do so with accuracy and respect."

Margolis was in the audience, and offered to host such a program. He said the initial response from Jewish educators has been positive - a group of teachers from Jewish day schools and synagogue-based after-school programs rapidly volunteered to take part - but that the sponsors will have to assess whether the program is making a difference before determining whether to continue it.

The pilot program this winter was scheduled to have four seminars, at which the Jewish educators would learn about the emergence of Christianity as a separate religion from Judaism, the Jewishness of Christianity, the conflicts over Christmas, Hanukkah, Easter and Passover, and the impact of the Second Vatican Council on the Catholic Church.

But the Jewish teachers had so many questions, they added a fifth session just for questions about Christianity.

"How do you understand some of the atrocities that happened?" asked Ronit Ziv-Kreger, the Judaic Studies coordinator at MetroWest Jewish Day School in Framingham. Ellie Goldberg of Congregation B'nai Shalom in Westborough asked about the Catholic belief that Jesus is present in the wine and bread of Communion. And on it went - about confession, and resurrection, and the nature of salvation for non-Christians.

Sirois, who fielded the questions with a copy of the catechism by her side, acknowledged the topics are difficult, even for many Catholics.

"I teach Catholics, and many of them will say, 'We know we've been saved, but we don't know what that means,' " Sirois said during the session, which took place over coffee cake and orange juice in the library of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Newton. And, during her 45-minute answer to the question about the Trinity, she said, "Catholics themselves ask this."

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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