Liberal Jewish Schools Update Curriculum — by Adding Christianity

At Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in suburban Washington, Jewish history courses cover the rise of Christianity and Church-sanctioned anti-Semitism, and then go on to teach how Jewish-Christian relations have improved in recent years. Reconstructionist rabbinical students are required to take at least one course in Christianity, and also have the option of taking a course with Lutheran students on Christian-Jewish dialogue.

And the Jewish Theological Seminary is considering developing a required course on other religions.

Outside Orthodoxy — where interfaith studies and exchanges remains rare — Jewish learning about Christian tenets and history appears to be on the rise, reflecting a growing climate of trust between Jews and Christians in the United States.

Next week, 50 faculty members and administrators from 21 Christian and Jewish seminaries — including ones representing the Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform and traditional wings of Judaism — will gather in Baltimore for two days of discussions on how they teach future clergy about other faiths.

And at a meeting earlier this month, the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, a group of top Catholic and Jewish leaders, issued a recommendation calling on both Catholics and Jews to make learning about the evolution of relations — particularly the Church’s 1965 repudiation of the concept of Jewish guilt for Christ’s death — a core part of the curriculum for new clergy.

According to the statement, Jewish institutions — due to difficulty overcoming “generational memories of anti- Semitic oppression” — have not made as great an effort as Catholic ones to revamp their teaching about the other in recent years.

Increasingly, however, liberal Jewish institutions are incorporating the history of Christianity into their curricula and are promoting exchanges with clergy of other faiths. Many also participate in exchanges in which rabbinical students study periodically with students in Christian seminaries, or share training in things such as chaplaincy.

While still rare, a growing number of Jewish day schools are integrating Christian history into the curriculum or participating in exchanges with neighboring Christian schools.

In a pilot program jointly sponsored by the Archdiocese of Boston and the local Anti-Defamation League chapter, 13 students at the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston are taking an elective course on the development of Christianity, Catholic holidays and liturgical cycles.

The students met six times this year to study together and do joint social action projects with local Catholic students enrolled in a course on Judaism.

In a similar program, the American Jewish Committee’s Catholic-Jewish Educational Enrichment Program, parallel courses are set up between Catholic schools and Jewish day schools. Jewish leaders teach in the Catholic schools and Catholic leaders teach in Jewish schools.

The 10-year-old project, known as C-JEEP, currently is in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and will expand to Pittsburgh next year.

Proponents of interfaith learning argue that it actually strengthens Jewish understanding of Judaism and prepares Jews to converse intelligently with Christian neighbors and colleagues.

“From my own involvement with such conversations, I don’t feel there’s anything to fear from them,” said Rabbi Allan Kensky, dean of the JTS rabbinical school. “My own sense of being anchored in Jewish tradition is enhanced by such conversations. I often gain a deeper understanding of my own tradition by seeing it in light of another.”

A familiarity with Christianity also is useful to rabbis when counseling congregants who converted or, as is increasingly common, talking to Jews who are married to Christians.

“Most Jews are unbelievably ignorant about Christianity,” said Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, director of religious studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in suburban Philadelphia.

While many argue that Christianity pervades American culture, Fuchs-Kreimer said most of what Jews consider Christian is simply a “paganized” version of the religion, and few Jews know “the actual history of how these religions developed.”

Her husband, she said, grew up thinking Christians believed that Jesus had come back to life as the Easter bunny.

Nonetheless, Orthodox leaders have generally been reluctant to discuss Christianity, citing concerns that it will undermine Jewish learning or even shatter people’s faith in Judaism.

The late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, whose writings remain an authoritative voice for centrist Orthodoxy, responded to the Vatican’s 1965 call for more Jewish-Catholic dialogue by permitting joint work on social problems, but not theological exploration.

Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school does not offer courses on Christianity, and few Orthodox day schools study other religions or offer exchanges with Christian institutions.

Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, dean of YU’s rabbinical school, could not be reached for comment.

Rabbi Joshua Fishman, executive vice president of Torah Umesorah, an umbrella organization for Orthodox day schools, also could not be reached.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior inter-religious adviser, said considerably more work needs to be done at seminaries of all faiths, including Judaism.

“When these priests, ministers and rabbis go out into the world, they have a great education in their own religion, but they often don’t know firsthand what their neighbors are believing and teaching,” Rudin said.

“They’re going into a very pluralistic America and really need to know firsthand what’s the difference between an evangelical Protestant and a Roman Catholic and a Presbyterian.”

Rosann Catalano, a Roman Catholic scholar at the Baltimore-based Institute for Christian and Jewish studies, which is sponsoring next week’s conference for seminary heads, said, “The challenge is how do you educate seminarians so they’re grounded in their own tradition, and at the same time open to and able to provide leadership in a religiously plural world?”

Perhaps more daunting than ideological concerns are time constraints.

Most rabbinical schools do not require exchanges or separate courses on other faiths, saying there is a limit to how much can be squeezed into already-crowded schedules.

“You can’t add something without removing something else from the program,” said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the University of Judaism’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

“Am I in favor of adding more understanding of other religions? Absolutely. But I’m also in favor of more Talmud.”

Most Jewish day schools — which already have their hands full teaching both Judaic and secular studies — also find it difficult to squeeze in anything new.

However, Cynthia Peterman, chair of the Jewish history department at Charles E. Smith, said it is “very important for our students to engage in thinking about how they view Christianity today and how Christians view Jews.”

“I would hate for our students to come away from their studies of Jewish history thinking that Christians, and Catholics in particular, are all Jew-haters,” Peterman said.

But some question whether it’s necessary to make a special effort of studying Catholicism or Christianity in general, when they are so much a part of mainstream Western culture.

“Virtually 70 percent of the world history taught in our Jewish high schools is the history of Christianity,” said Bruce Powell, head of a new community Jewish high school in Los Angeles and a consultant to day schools.

Powell, who is the former head of the Milken Community High School of the Stephen Wise Temple, also in Los Angeles, said, “Most of history is Christian history. The real question is, do the Jewish schools teach enough Jewish history?”

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