School Supplement: Follow the childrens lead when teaching about God

Once, parents dreaded the "Where did I come from?" talk with their children.

Some still do — but they don't fear discussing sex.

Instead, in the post-sexual revolution era, mothers and fathers often find themselves struggling with questions of spirituality rather than sexuality.

Rabbis and Jewish educators agree: When it comes to issues of faith, prayer and higher beings, moms and dads who can readily explain geometry or geology find themselves at a loss when talking about God.

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto suggests allowing children to take the lead.

"Children, unlike adults, aren't ready to give up asking these ultimate questions. They are symbols of them being in touch with the wonder of the world," Lewis said.

"It's so natural for kids to ask these questions [about God]. And I think it's important that they be encouraged."

The reflections of children, ranging from musings about what God looks like to concerns about a presence that allows horrors like the Holocaust to occur, are natural, Lewis said.

In order to create meaningful dialogue, he suggests that parents speak as honestly as possible.

"Be open. Don't be afraid of sharing with your children that you don't know all the answers — that we all wonder about these most basic questions, like how the world came into being and where were we before we were born and where will we go after death," Lewis said.

"It's primarily about being receptive to questions."

Vicky Kelman, director of the Family Education Project, agrees.

She also offered some concrete suggestions for spurring spiritual sessions between parents and children.

First, she explained, parents need to realize they cannot teach their children about God without developing their own spiritual life.

"Otherwise you're at a loss when kids ask questions," Kelman said.

To create what she calls a "safe space" for developing dialogue, Kelman urges parents to do exercises she created for a family chavurah (friendship circle) curriculum.

Called Family Room, the curriculum is geared toward encouraging families to learn as a unit. One way families can talk about God is while studying Jewish blessings and related concepts such as "food as a gift from God."

To make this concept more tangible, the chavurah or family might gift wrap a challah, unwrap it and discuss the cycle food goes through to reach the dinner table.

The Family Room curriculum is a guideline to set families on track. Discussions, projects and activities can branch out in any direction, especially when talking about the Divine, she said.

"You can tell stories, learn blessings, talk about God's gifts in the natural world and make telescopes to look at them," Kelman said. "I keep a list of children's [ideas of] gifts from God — trees, grandmas, popcorn."

Tzilla Brafman, a Hebrew and Judaic studies teacher at Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School in Palo Alto, asks her pupils in grades three through five to visualize Torah passages and explain them in their own words.

Children's vocabulary about spiritual matters, she said, "is amazing.

"If you merely read and try to explain text, it can appear very scary," Brafman said. "But when you take kids into their imagination and ask them to use their own language, you discover how very simply they see it. We [adults] complicate it."

Brafman, for example, recently asked her students about the concept that "God is everywhere."

First the students talked about what God looks like, she said. Most of the students described God as neither male nor female but "energy." A discussion ensued about how individuals understand God in everything — from the trees to the desks they use.

"I asked them if God is in the desk, then is it wrong that we sit on God? One of my third-graders raised her hand and said `No. God is in the desk but God is in us, so we're not sitting on God, God is sitting with God,'" Brafman said.

Kelman, like Lewis, said children don't need much prodding on these subjects. They only stop talking about the "greater questions" when they sense their parents or teachers are uncomfortable.

"I come across so many people who say their belief in God was never discussed in Hebrew or Sunday school classes," Kelman said.

"As parents and teachers, we recognize the necessity of developing intellectual and physical muscles. But we need to develop our children's souls too."

While that may sound easy enough, Rabbi Amy Eilberg says the secular nature of American society makes spiritual discussions difficult for parents.

"There's this message that as contemporary Jews we're not supposed to talk about God or spirituality," said Eilberg, Jewish Bulletin columnist and director of Kol Haneshama, Jewish Hospice, of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. "There's this fear we'll lose our modern quality and go back to the shtetl."

But, she added, "I think this fear of the spiritual realm is beginning to change."

Eilberg is not surprised by the lack of what she calls "God talk" in recent decades. The Holocaust "struck generations speechless," she said. "How could we talk about God or prayer after that?"

But as time passes and painful memories of those horrors are more openly discussed, Eilberg calls for a "reclaiming of voice about God and faith" among those "in the non-Orthodox community."

Jews need to be comfortable with the idea of not being an expert about God or prayer, she added, and understand that no "right" answers exist.

And she suggests looking to the wisdom of youth for direction.

"People say, `I don't know how to pray.' And I ask, `Do you know how to wish? How to talk to someone you care about?'" Eilberg said.

"The question of who or what is that person, being, or power we are addressing gets in the way. Intellect rushes in."

Children, she said, naturally engage in less intellectual dialogue, talking often, for example, to invisible imagined characters.

"We all once knew how to pray," she said. "But we all unlearned it."