I was invited to a Bar Mitzvah. Should I know what that is?

Image of the world (globe) with symbols representing different religions around it
Have a listen or read below
Alicia Jo Rabins explaining and singing her song ‘Rubies’ inspired by a Jewish tradition

I’m living with a wonderful Jewish family in Boston who are educating me through including me in their traditions and are happy for me to share my experiences with them here in my blog. I don’t know any Jewish people at home and only know the basics about the Jewish religion, so this is all new learning and experiencing for me. And it’s making me reflect on some of my practices as a teacher in the classroom! Why? Let me tell you….

The topic of religion came up by chance one night. Mam and her youngest child were talking to me about New Year, in September? So I asked what new year and the conversation just flowed from there. I learned how the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, differs from mine (though they celebrate all New Years in this house). I loved when I came home to a New Year’s table set with round food and learned that it represented the cyclical nature of time and seasons that repeat. And I was just genuinely grateful to be included, as much as I wanted, and given the information I needed to understand- content and experience-based learning. The next Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, was one of fasting and while I didn’t partake in that one (you know I love my food) I was conscious that I wouldn’t sit in their kitchen stuffing myself while they were abstaining. Similar to my Lent, this day was followed by a period of reflection and then celebration, Sukkot, which a professor at Boston College kindly invited me to. I was recommended and listened to the amazing Jewish artist –Alicia Jo Rabins who you have to listen to- who has had a curricular programme to teach the Torah designed around her music. And lastly, the family have invited me to a Bar Mitzvah later this month. I’ve already prepped for it. I’ve googled, watched videos, and listened to explanations from the young man making his Bar Mitzvah. And the 12-year old’s explanation was how I learned best.

 Apart from being here in Boston to experience new things, I’m taking the time to learn about these holidays and celebrations out of respect. I’m in this family’s home, they are kind enough to invite me in and include me so it is the least I can do. And I have the skills to find the information I need, to find similarities between my traditions and theirs using my prior knowledge, to contextualise it for myself. And that is what has me thinking about my past practices in school…

School is our second home, for both teachers and students. Yet I wonder does our religious and cultural respect go both ways? In a predominantly Catholic Ireland, many of our national traditions and feast days are based around the Catholic religion. And that’s ok, it’s our culture. But it’s not the culture of all of our students. Though we invite them into their new home, I think we forget firstly to give them time to learn our ways, secondly to contextualise it, and thirdly participate-or not – in our traditions as they feel comfortable. But more importantly we can forget, or in my case, be insensitive to their religious and cultural holidays.

In school, I thought I was being so inclusive. At Christmas I arranged to have Happy Christmas translated into the languages of every student in our school. When teaching the Junior Cycle Schools Programme Irish Cultural Studies, I tweaked the learning statement ‘tell the story of two Irish saints including a local saint’. I had more students of different nationalities and religions than Irish and Catholics in this class, so I used the statement to learn about the important figures in their religions or cultures. With many of my students being Muslim I knew when Ramadan was and was conscious that students may be tired from fasting, may need more breaks, or need more patience from me. Inclusive, right? Well, that’s where it ended. School was their home as much as mine, but my culture, religion, and traditions trumped theirs. This was subconscious but it happened all the same. I asked students about their important figures but didn’t mark their feast days. As many of you know I’m a nibbler, so I ate – in class – in front of students fasting. I also never thought to offer them a place outside of the canteen – where everyone was eating – to go at lunch to rest of just not be surrounded by food. I acknowledged students didn’t celebrate Easter or Christmas, yet my rewards at these times were Easter Eggs and selection boxes.

I didn’t do this out of malice ,I thought I was excelling at inclusion. I did this because of my privilege, my implicit bias where my cultural and religious traditions in my country were at the top of the hierarchy. But if school is to be truly home to everyone there can be no religious or cultural hierarchies. We must be aware of our bias. We must give our students the information and experiences to understand and partake (at their comfort) in our traditions. More importantly, we must be respectful of their cultural and religious identity and not whitewash them because ‘they’re in our country’. Of course, we will mark and celebrate our national traditions, but we must be mindful that ours are not the only ones. This has been such a positive learning experience for me. And it is one very good example of how inclusion needs to be considered in its broadest sense in Ireland and not just from a SEN perspective. Should I know what a Bar Mitzvah is, what Ramadan is? Yes, and I should enable those in my school family, in my social networks, and in my community to mark their holidays without the added barriers of me not checking all my biases.  I’m thankful to my US family, and diverse range of US friends, for what they are teaching me!

Note: I know there are schools and teachers out there who did a better job than me at being culturally inclusive. Please share your experiences to share the learning.

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