By Gail Katz
I spent my early childhood and my elementary school years in Silver Spring, Maryland, in a rather non-Jewish neighborhood. I was one of a few Jewish children in my school. The memories that have stuck with me are ones of feeling different from my neighbors and my classmates, although I was never bullied.
I started each morning bowing my head with all the other children and saying the Lord’s Prayer in my public school classroom, and even in my sleep today I can recite “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” I remember my third grade teacher asking my mother to come to my classroom in December to talk to my classmates about the “Jewish Christmas” – oh yes, Chanukah!!
My Judaism mostly revolved around the holidays which my parents acknowledged – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover and Hanukkah, but other than that, I had no idea what being Jewish meant. My brother went to Hebrew school to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah, but girls were not expected back in the 1950s to get any real Jewish education. So as a child, I felt conspicuous for not knowing how to read or recite the Hebrew prayers, and when we did go to synagogue on the high holidays, I would sit next to my father, playing with the “tsitsit” (the fringes) on his tallit (prayer shawl), waiting impatiently to go home. There was always this sense of anger inside me that I didn’t fit in at school or in my Jewish community.
When I was 12 years old, my father got a job with Ford Motor Company and we moved to Oak Park, a community that was about 85 percent Jewish. But I still felt different and was a target for bullying in junior high school as the “new kid”, the “quiet kid,” and “the nerd.” My sense of outrage at not being given respect for being different from the “cool” kids laid the foundation for my later passion in helping students organize diversity clubs.
While all of this was unfolding, my mother’s father came from Far Rockaway, New York to live with us in Oak Park. My Grandpa Aron was very religious, spoke mostly Yiddish, and reminisced with my mother about his old county, Russia, which was Poland when my mother was born there, and today is part of Belarus.
It was my grandfather’s and my mother’s immigrant backgrounds that inspired me to become an English as a Second Language teacher in the Berkley Public Schools. I saw how these ESL students felt ostracized because of their struggle with the English language, their different cultures and religions and their different economic status. I formed a diversity club called STARS (Students Taking a Right Stand) to help address these problems among others.
It was during my teaching career in the Berkley School District that I noticed an article in the Jewish News about a grant that the Jewish Community Relations Council received to sponsor a Religious Diversity Initiative. It didn’t take long for me to get on the committee, then chair the committee, and finally become the coordinator of the program entitled the Religious Diversity Journeys (RDJ) for Seventh graders, which is now a cornerstone program of the InterFaith Leadership Council that has had a lasting impact on thousands of students since 1993.
This program promotes greater awareness and understanding of the many religions prevalent in Metro Detroit and prepares students for life in our increasingly diverse society. The concept of kids in the seventh grade being welcomed into different houses of worship, where they can learn about religions in a non-intimidating environment, where they are encouraged to ask as many questions as they want with the host clergy and volunteer congregants, fits so naturally into the Michigan state required curriculum on World Religions in the social studies curriculum. RDJ can help that one seventh grader who may be the only Muslim or Sikh kid in their class – just like I was the only Jewish kid in my class back in Silver Spring, MD – feel less like “the other.”
These days we need to encourage and grow that understanding of “the other” more than ever. Just as it is important to instill a curiosity to learn about each other’s faith in children, the IFLC over the past 12 years has offered adult classes, panel discussions, and informal lectures – often free and open to the public – to learn about religions through the study of comparative texts, religious symbols, music and traditional clothing.
Though we may need to remain physically separated during the ongoing pandemic, the IFLC will continue to provide opportunities to keep us spiritually and intellectually connected. RDJ will connect more children in the tri-county area than ever before through a virtual program teaching them about Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, and Christianity. And this fall, the IFLC will unveil a virtual, docent-led expedition delving into how ten different Detroit-area artist express their faith through their art.
Programming like this takes much tech-savvy planning and cannot happen without your generosity. The IFLC is very thankful to our supporters. Without you, such past programming, and the friendships that result, would not be possible. With continued support, the IFLC will continue to meet the challenge of teaching others about religion, so that no one ever feels like “the other.” We seek to continue and expand these programs through support from people like you. Please consider a donation through www.detroitinterfaithcouncil.com, or by clicking on the Donate button below. And once again, thank you.