“But that’s not what Jewish people believe!” the round-cheeked student shouted, as the other girl shrank into herself. “That’s wrong!” The other three students looked pained and uncomfortable, and eventually everyone fell silent.
It started as a plan to celebrate Hanukkah. Both students in this disagreement were Jewish. I knew from my upbringing in New York that getting into a competition about “correct” observance was not worthwhile and that I was unprepared to judge it.
When I first became the chaplain at this Episcopal school, there were few precedents for celebrating non-Christian holidays in the chapel. It was very important to me to make sure that students from other religions felt welcome in that space. Luckily, this was in line with the school’s Episcopal identity, which deeply values inclusivity.
Sitting in the back of the chapel with students and discussing how to share Hanukkah (then later, with other groups, Diwali, Kwanzaa, and Eid-al-Fitr), I realized that even with my academic experience, I wasn’t qualified to explain holidays that were not my own. One year, we invited a Hindu parent to come in and speak about Diwali. When we thanked her for sharing her knowledge, she was gracious and remarked (to my surprise) that she’d made good use of Wikipedia. I learned that sometimes when we expect them to be experts, people who practice religion may be hesitant to share their experiences. That means we lose out on hearing their stories.
A lot of the conversation about religious diversity happens during chapel services in my school, but it also can occur in classrooms, in homerooms or in social studies classes. Many teachers (and chaplains) shy away from exploring unfamiliar religious holidays because they are concerned about their own ignorance or about offending families. There’s also the nagging guilt that raises the questions: If we celebrate one holiday, do we have to do them all? How far does inclusion stretch?
Begin with your own community—classroom, school, or neighborhood. Make a space where folks can tell their stories and safely share their religious identities. Offer the opportunity for students of the same tradition to celebrate their stories of religious observance together, even if they don’t overlap perfectly. If you are in a public school setting where there is concern about teaching about religion, having students “show and tell,” with an emphasis on their own family experience rather than religious expertise, can be a way to honor students and their religious traditions. There is room for students to share multiple traditions and the challenges of religious experience.
Harlan-Ferlo is a writer, chaplain and world religions teacher at a PreK-12 independent Episcopal school in Oregon.