by Gillian Steinberg
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is part of a collection of essays on teaching religious studies for K-12 teachers. The essays were collated and edited by one of the CrossCurrents Editorial Board members, Henry Goldschmidt. We always welcome essays and ideas on pedagogy, particularly when connected to interreligious work, social justice, and the arts.
Growing up as one of the only Jews in a very small, deeply Christian town, I often felt more aware of Christian culture and customs than of my own, which I only experienced in the small circle of my family. As in most small towns, anonymity was never an option, so rather than shying away from an identity with which everyone associated us anyway, my family very much leaned into it. I saw myself as a sort of interpreter of Judaism, attempting to make it comprehensible and palatable for the Christians around me, explaining our beliefs and practices as effectively as I could and, as is so often the case with minorities, serving as a vastly oversimplified representative of an entire diverse population.
At the same time, I struggled with the lack of Jewish community, and even well-intentioned folks couldn’t fully understand certain aspects of my experience. I was asked to explain everything from why I had curly hair to why my house was filled with books to why I wasn’t worried about burning in Hell for all eternity. Sometimes, it was easier to just thank those classmates who, each morning, with tears in their eyes, told me that they were praying I would be saved soon; easier to wear the Easter bonnet in the (public school!) Easter parade; easier to sing along during Christmas caroling and just mouth the “Christ is born” parts to avoid attracting unwanted attention.
While my parents rightly argued that our presence provided an important educational service, I couldn’t wait to move away as soon as I was able, and my only qualification for a new home was “someplace with other Jews.” I appreciate that my parents stayed – even as my siblings and I moved on – and continued to lead annual Holocaust remembrance services at various churches, interface with local religious organizations, host any stray Jews who found themselves in town, and share our culture and traditions with their neighbors. But I was ready to be with people more like myself, and every community I have entered since that time has had a larger Jewish population than the last.
As I moved away from being a spokesperson for the Jews, though, I found something else unusual occurring: I started to become a spokesperson among Jews for interfaith dialogue and the importance of learning about other religions. I knew, of course, that many aspects of my childhood had been deeply meaningful to me and had drawn me closer to my Judaism, but I hadn’t realized that becoming a member of a majority-Jewish community would lead me to advocate for greater interaction among people of all religions. When I made my home in the somewhat insular Jewish world of New York City, I was surprised by how little other Jews knew about Christianity and how many misconceptions they held. Of course, not being exposed to something can lead to such issues, but the hard-won success of today’s Orthodox Jewish enclaves has meant that many individuals only know about other religions in superficial or stereotypical ways.
Therefore, as I have entered communities where I feel more accepted and ordinary, I also draw on my childhood experiences as a member of a vastly outnumbered minority to build bridges in the other direction. I specialized in Christian poetry for my doctorate in literature and began to teach courses on Christianity and Modern Poetry at Yeshiva University, one of only two Orthodox-affiliated institutions of higher learning in America. Through this work, I found that my students were fascinated by people of other religions just as I had once felt like the object of curious attention in my hometown. At YU, my Jewishness wasn’t interesting at all, but my knowledge of other religions was. When I switched eight years ago to teaching at an Orthodox Jewish high school, I carried these same experiences with me and have continued to include diverse voices in my classrooms. Many of my colleagues are similarly engaged with diversity education, helping our students understand the Israel-Palestine conflict from multiple angles; introducing them to literature, art, and music from around the world and across cultures; encouraging them to engage more meaningfully with our larger Bronx community through athletics, charitable projects, and co-curricular activities; and more.
But, in all of these efforts, the Jewish community remains (understandably so) at the center of the learning process. That’s one of the reasons that the Religious Worlds of New York summer institute was so important to me; it allowed me to find myself – this time as an adult – in a minority position. This time, however, I was engaged with individuals who had consciously and self-reflectively chosen to immerse themselves in interreligious dialogue and religious diversity education. This group was not afraid to tackle tough conversations nor to listen carefully to and learn from one another and from our outstanding guest speakers; at the same time, we were all there with a shared goal of improving our pedagogy.
I have frequently engaged in professional development experiences, but none of them touched me as deeply as this one did, in part because it allowed me to return to the various discomforts and benefits of my childhood. This time, however, I did not face evangelizing nor judgment, and I tried to bring that same open-mindedness to those around me. I felt, perhaps for the first time, like part of a joint religious endeavor even though my fellow participants were not co-religionists.
It is not easy to create this atmosphere; too often, conversations about religion are alienating, driving people back to the safety of their own corners or leaving them feeling like circus performers on display. But the Religious Worlds of New York experience enabled each of us to bring our full selves to the conversation without ulterior motives beyond pure learning. That opportunity was a gift on so many levels, not only for someone like me who has searched for this kind of dialogue throughout my life, but for every participant regardless of background. For once, I was not the interpreter for others; we were all interpreters for each other. I was no longer building a bridge alone or with only a handful of others while the mass of people stood aside, watching the bridge be built. Instead, every person in that room, for three intense but beautiful weeks, built a series of bridges together. As I returned to my classroom after this summer institute, forever connected to a diverse, nationwide network of brilliant and dedicated teachers, I felt more equipped than ever before to help my students build, maintain, and value those bridges too.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
The Religious Worlds of New York summer institute for teachers is a project of the Interfaith Center of New York, in partnership with Union Theological Seminary, and with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in these essays do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Dr. Gillian Steinberg (she/her) teaches English and co-directs faculty professional development at SAR High School, a Modern Orthodox Jewish school in the Bronx. Prior to her work at SAR, she was a literature professor at Yeshiva University, where she was twice voted Professor of the Year. She publishes on poetry, pedagogy, and short fiction, including two books – Philip Larkin and His Audiences and Thomas Hardy: The Poems – and a cover story for The Washington Post Sunday Magazine. She earned her BA at UNC-Chapel Hill, and her MA and PhD at the University of Delaware.