A Personal Religious Diversity Journey

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by Meredith Skowronski, IFLC administrator, and RDJ Program Director

Although it’s been six years since I anxiously hung my name-plate outside of my classroom door and waited with anticipation for the start of the school year, as the summer winds down again I still feel the pull.  The soft undertow tugging my thoughts towards the ocean of students who will soon enter my life: “Will my lessons interest them?”, “Will my classroom be a safe haven for them to ask questions?” “Will they understand one another and come together as a group to share in the learning experience?”, “In the short amount of time that I am with them, how can I help them to become more successful thinkers and teach them how to be successful- not just in the classroom, but in life?”

Each year the questions never change.  And neither does the longing to guide students towards their own individual gifts and provide them the tools to sharpen them.  And while I am no longer in a school classroom struggling to decide how to rally excitement around photosynthesis or the intricacies and importance of DNA, I am still a teacher. For me, I am a teacher more now than I ever was before.  My classroom has become the fifteen congregations that we will visit this year on the Religious Diversity Journeys Program.  Inside these walls I will welcome 450 7th grade students from sixteen different school districts in metro-Detroit and together, the life-lessons will begin.

Having been raised in an interfaith home, my father and his family spanning from Orthodox to Reform Judaism and my mother a conservative Baptist, it would be easy to think that as a child I was raised with an open mind and heart. That the reason I have so much passion for the RDJ program is because I have always been open to the beliefs of others and want to share that grand vision with my students.  Sadly, that is not the case.  While I was fortunate to have learned a great deal about Judaism from my father and his family while concurrently being raised in the church, I never asked questions. I was taught that questioning showed a lack of faith. I believed that my faith superseded that of everyone else and because of that elitism I believed that understanding the traditions and customs of others had no value in my life.  In short, instead of being the open-minded child that would spread the goodness of others, I was the child who stereotyped others, who judged others who were not like me.  In short, I was the child that the Journeys program was made for.

As I grew past my formative years and began to think and experience more of life’s challenges for myself I lost hold of my faith for a long time. Now, as an adult in hindsight, I realize that as a child and young adult I never truly had faith to begin with. I had never taken all that I was taught and told to believe and made it my own.  I never questioned it, never explored it.  It was in my head but never in my heart.

As an adult I’ve come to learn that we will never grow in our own faith if we do not turn the light away from ourselves and shine it towards others. Turning our love for ourselves into an outward love and concern for others illuminates who they are and guides us on the path of mutual understanding.  Understanding not simply what others believe but why they believe what they do- I have learned a great deal about myself. About where and in whom my faith should be placed. And thanks to my loving husband, some dear friends who have patiently shepherded me along the way, and in no small part the hand of God in my life, I have found my way back to faith.

There have been many days that I have sat with superintendents and shared with them the details of the Religious Diversity Journeys program.  How we visit a synagogue, a church, a mosque, a Hindu temple and a gurdwara. That our students spend the day immersed in these faith traditions in a safe environment where they can ask questions, interact with one another and hopefully break down their misconceptions. That when I began directing this program three years ago I was naively excited that all of these students will come away from the year knowing all of the Jewish holidays, or the 5 pillars of Islam and how, while those are important lessons, the truths they come away with are much stronger.

The life-changing elements of this program are not the details that they will find in their RDJ textbooks or the facts that they will hear from the religious leaders and community volunteers at each location.  What changes these students’ lives are the people that they are able to interact with.  The shared smiles and laughter.  As one student stated, “I never knew Rabbis could be funny”.  The moments spent getting to know new people in unusual places. I will never forget the conversation I overheard in the restroom at the mosque a few years ago when a Jewish student shyly asked a Muslim student how she keeps her Hijab tied on her head.  The Muslim student responded by taking off her hijab and tying it on her new friend to teach her.  Seeing how brave our teachers and parents can be.  As one teacher shared with the group while visiting the mosque after the attacks in Paris: “I came to the mosque today angry and ready to fight about the ‘evils of Islam’ but am leaving understanding that Islam is a religion of peace and that Muslims are some of the kindest and most welcoming and generous people I have ever met.”  The stories go on and on.  Time and time again I leave the Journeys with a smile on my face and a warmed heart- marveling at how much can change in spending one day focusing our lights on others.  As we held our summation session at the DIA last year I asked the students to stand up and share with the group the biggest lesson that they learned during their time on the Journeys. I will never forget the edgy twelve year old girl who stood and shared with 150 of her student peers along with 50 or so parents that she didn’t want to participate in the program at first because she was afraid that she was going to be judged.  But that throughout the course of the year she learned that she, in fact, was not being judged, but was the one guilty of judging others. It’s amazing what we learn about ourselves when we step back and illuminate the lives of others.

There are no words to express how deeply this program effects lives. How much it has effected mine.  It is my deepest wish that throughout this school year, as we welcome so many new students and parents, that we are able to teach them to turn their search lights outward towards others and that in doing so they will strengthen their own beliefs and understanding.  That they will take the time to understand the “why” behind the customs and faith of others and come to know that while we all may believe differently from one another and that we all may practice those beliefs in very different ways- underlying all of that, we share a common set of values.  We are all people trying to become the best versions of ourselves.

One of the major reasons that kids bully one another is because of fear. And we fear what we do not understand. Journeys gives these students the unique opportunity to combat their fears about others by offering them a safe and fun environment to ask questions and to learn. So as I open my classroom door this year and welcome our new students and parents to the Journeys program, I eagerly await the opportunity to teach them the importance of understanding one another, and in doing so, developing a deeper understanding of themselves.

I would be remiss not to mention that the most important contributions to this program are from my friends- the volunteers at each congregation that give of their time and energy to welcome us all with open arms.  These big-hearted people who immerse us in their faiths, who laugh with us, share a meal with us and teach us that even though we may all look different from one another, speak differently, worship differently and live our lives in very different ways- that we all are striving for many of the same goals- to love one another and to understand ourselves.

Our 2015-2016 Host Congregations and Journey Locations:

Adat Shalom Synagogue

Bharatiya Hindu Temple

Christ Church Cranbrook

The Detroit Institute of Arts

First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham

Gurdwara Sahib Singh Sabha

Hartford Memorial Baptist Church

The Hindu Temple of Canton

The Holocaust Memorial Center

Islamic Center of America

Mata Tripta Ji Gurdwara Sahib

Muslim Unity Center

Sikh Gurdwara of Rochester Hills

Sri Venkateswara Hindu Temple

Temple Beth El

Temple Israel