I teach Kindergarten at a Jewish day school, and although we are affiliated with the Conservative movement, our children come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some come from homes that strongly identify as Jewish, and some come from homes where more than one -or less than one – religion is practiced. As we began our study of prayer, Hebrew, Torah and Jewish ritual, I am never sure how to explain to many of these children why we are learning all this stuff. (I’ve learned from experience not to rely on parents to do this.)
A few years ago, I received a review copy of the book Many Ways: How Families Practice Their Beliefs and Religions from Lerner Publishing. It’s been an indispensable tool in grounding our study and practice of Judaism in a larger story. The book introduces six world religions through images of six children dressed in traditional garb. The book identifies essential similarities shared by these religions in the simplest of terms – “Books tell what their great teachers taught. Symbols remind people of their beliefs” – while the gorgeous photographs illuminate the many and complicated differences. One two page spread shows a Rabbi holding a Torah, a candle lighting ceremony in a Hindu temple, a minister offering communion, a Muslim washing his hands outside of a mosque. and Buddhists clad in white robes seated in meditation.
As I read the book aloud to the children at the beginning of the year, we look for all of the images that might be familiar to us or part of our own family’s experience. At the end of the story I tell them that there are many, many ways that people celebrate, worship and study. At our school, we learn about the Jewish way. I’m not sure this explanation really helps every child make sense of his or her Jewish education, but as I teacher, I feel that I’ve honored where they are coming from without compromising where I am coming from.
There’s very little specific information in Many Ways about any of the religions, save for a brief index in the back. But it’s almost impossible to read through this short book without wanting to learn more about all of the peoples represented in its pages. And on a day like today, the anniversary of 9/11, it’s hard not to wish that more people around the world took the time and effort to do just that.