On Wednesday evening, third and fourth graders gathered together with their parents to share a meal and a program. The program, led by their Judaic Studies teacher, Morah Leah (Lisa Bernstein), was the culminating event of a 10-week unit on God.  Using the book I Have Some Questions About God by Bradley Shavit Artson et al, students examined a series of questions about God to help them reflect on, expand, grapple with, clarify and discuss their thoughts. The students also consulted stories and rabbinic commentary to add to the perspectives to consider. Throughout the unit, students kept a journal of their evolving thoughts and reflections and shared some of these with their parents and the parents of their classmates at the program. One of the skills the students worked hard to master was the ability to engage in respectful dialogue that includes plenty of disagreement. Rather than saying, “I am against X on that point.” They learned to say, “I disagree with the point made about Y because…”

Using something like a “speed dating” protocol, students and parents had five minutes to discuss a question, consider a story that speaks to that question or reflect on an alternative yet related question. When time was called, students moved one seat to the next parent (or set of parents) to address another question. This protocol was paused at various points to make space for student-created skits that contextualized the ideas in student-centric scenarios. The students wrapped up the presentation by sharing their ideas, noting where they agreed or disagreed with the ideas offered in the scene, and expanding on the thoughts shared by the group.

The students’ excitement in discussing their ideas was truly remarkable. Equally remarkable was the engagement of all the parents; leaning in, animated and actively sharing, debating and prompting the students for more information.  “This [was] the best HDS event I’ve ever attended,” said Mira Sussman, third grade parent. “We got to have deep meaningful conversations with Ishai’s classmates, many of whom I haven’t spoken to this way before. Truly incredible.”

Below is a sampling – three of the questions with an amalgamation of some of the resulting ideas and responses offered by the students:

Is the Bible true?
As with virtually every question we addressed, there are some students who believe the Bible is true and some who do not.  In digging deeper, it becomes clear that many of the students start off equating truth with historical fact.  Through the stories in the book and their developing thinking, they came to understand that truth might mean lessons or themes that are true for us.  Themes of freedom, responsibility for others, loyalty and justice, as well as lessons about resting on Shabbat, making peace in the family, following rules, and belief in God can all be gleaned from the stories that may or may not have happened the way the Bible reports.

Does God know what I’m thinking?
Students had some amazing thoughts on this.  Many spoke about free-will, some believe that God has foreknowledge of our decisions, but that the decisions are our own. When one student commented that God cannot stop us from making bad choices, another commented that this means that God isn’t as powerful as the Bible says!  In response, another student suggested that perhaps God is that powerful, but chooses not to use that power.  These comments demonstrate such high-level thinking that it seemed I was in the presence of rabbis, who have debated these issues for centuries!

Can praying make someone well?
Most students agreed with the consensus that praying doesn’t necessarily cause God to heal someone’s body, but rather when someone is sick and knows people are praying, it can increase hope and make them feel stronger emotionally.  A few students believe that prayer can heal in a more direct way.  And several students articulated ideas that bad things can make us stronger, tougher, and we can learn from them.  We also discussed things that are good to do when visiting someone who is ill.

Kol Hakavod to Morah Leah, her students and their parents for making this new program a success.