Learning about other religions and cultures can deepen one’s connection to Judaism as well as teach tolerance and understanding. These lessons are integral to confirmation classes at Congregation Shaare Emeth, which takes its Jewish high school students on visits to various religious institutions, including several churches, a mosque and a Hindu temple.
Rabbi James Bennett, senior rabbi at Shaare Emeth, has worked with confirmation students to expose them to a broad diversity of faiths in the hope of encouraging stronger relations with members of non-Jewish communities.
“I think it is really important for Jews to not only understand our own faith but also to understand the faith of our neighbors,” Bennett said. “For us to discover similarities and shared values as well as differences [is vital].”
Bennett believes that by creating clarity about and understanding different religions, it will ultimately improve relations among various faith communities.
“A goal that I have is that we demystify these other religions so that instead of having stereotypes and prejudices against [different] people … we have more knowledge about them,” he said. “[I think] that most hate is the result of people not knowing about the people they think they hate. Once you get to know somebody, you don’t hate them as much.”
Sam Baker, a freshman at Ladue Horton Watkins High School and student in the Shaare Emeth confirmation program, agrees.
“I think that learning about new cultures is important because the more we know about other cultures, the more we can understand other groups of people,” he said.
Baker also believes that being able to connect to his Jewish identity and understand his people’s history helps him to comprehend what he is learning during visits to non-Jewish places of worship.
“Whenever I go to new places, I’m able to connect something from their religion to ours. It’s very big for me,” he said. “I don’t think this will affect my relations with people of other religions because I’ve always been friendly with them, but I definitely understand them better.”
Lily Houser, a freshman at Marquette High School and another student in Shaare Emeth’s confirmation class, believes that learning about different religions will change her relations with people, because she will have greater understanding of other faiths.
“I’m able to see what different cultures do and why they do it,” she said. “I think it just gives me the ability to be closer with people who (are from) different cultures than me.”
According to students participating, Shaare Emeth’s confirmation program has met what it set out to do: creating connections to other communities, learning about different faiths and creating bridges of understanding.
“[With this program] I could understand how similar and different Judaism was to other religions,” Houser said. “I realized that I liked being part of a Jewish community because it makes me feel good and unique — it also makes me realize that all religions are very important to learn about.”