Non-Jewish teachers say working at Shalhevet strengthens ties to their own religions
Protestant, Catholic, Hindu and Jewish, faculty all say they learn about their own faith when living with others’
May 9, 2023
Shalhevet teachers of other faiths don’t feel that their religions are any barrier to feeling at home at Shalhevet. In fact, many think quite the opposite.
Four teachers interviewed last semester aligned in their opinion that moral values shared by most faiths connected them to the religious environment at Shalhevet.
“We’re really not all that different, you know,” says Dr. Keith Harris, history department chair, who is a non-denominational Christian. “We read the same books, we practice the same codes… We have the same sense of morality, we have the same — a lot of things that we do are very similar. Which is why I think that I fit in very well here.”
Dr. Keith Harris, Dr. Elizabeth Basheer, Ms. Priyanka Singh, and Ms. Nancy Fasules all shared in interviews that they felt connected to and inspired by the religious environment at Shalhevet. In fact, some felt that their experiences learning about Judaism gave them a deeper connection to their own faith.
Dr. Harris comes from a family of observant Southern Baptists in Alabama. Though he believes in the teachings of Jesus, he is no longer an adherent to a specific Christian denomination because he is bothered by the concepts of eternal damnation for those who don’t believe in Jesus, and that Christianity is right and all other religions are wrong.
If you zoom out a little bit and you look at the overarching themes and values and ideas, a lot of religions are saying a lot of the same things.
— Ms. Priyanka Singh, College Counseling
“A lot of people who belong to that church have issues with those who have not embraced Christ as their savior, and automatically assume that they’re going to hell,” said Dr. Harris. “I take issue with that, which is probably why I don’t belong to any church.”
Ms. Priyanka Singh, Associate Director of College Counseling and Academic Guidance, is a Hindu. Whereas both Christianity and Judaism stem from Abrahamic tradition, Hinduism is a completely separate faith. It is polytheistic, and uses musical incantations, ornate statues and dramatic stories involving demons and goddesses.
Even so, Ms. Singh sees many similarities between Hinduism and Abrahamic faiths, including shared values like kindness and compassion.
“If you zoom out a little bit and you look at the overarching themes and values and ideas, a lot of religions are saying a lot of the same things,” said Ms. Singh.
She said she uses her religion to gain a better understanding of the world’s many faiths and connect with them and their values.
It’s inspired me to live a better life, to be closer to the acknowledgment that I exist as part of something that’s much, much bigger than anything I could possibly be as a human. And I think that that’s because I’m surrounded by religious people all day long.
— Dr. Keith Harris, History
Ms. Singh also feels a special connection to Judaism and the religious persecution endured by Jews, she said, as a result of ostracism she experienced as a Hindu at the Catholic school she attended in childhood, she said. She loves the religious atmosphere of Shalhevet and the moral code of Judaism.
“That’s why I love working at a Jewish school,” said Ms. Singh. “Because I think even though it’s not a religion of my own, I deeply appreciate the values that it’s rooted in, and I’ve always felt welcomed here even though I’m not Jewish.”
Ms. Fasules grew up a Congregationalist Protestant, and like Dr. Harris retains her faith though she no longer attends church. She enjoys the musicality of her religion and uses the Bible for inspiration and guidance, she said, but disapproves of proselytizing and using fear to incentivize religion, rather than a sincere desire to connect to something greater than oneself.
“It’s all about… loving other people, helping other people, helping the world, healing brokenness,” says Ms. Fasules, who teaches English and the 11th-grade Banned Books course.
In contrast, Dr. Basheer has continued to practice her faith. As an observant Catholic, her family goes to church every Sunday, says Grace before meals and prays before bed.
Dr. Basheer, who teaches Biology and Biochemistry, described similar values in her own faith, Catholicism. “Love thy neighbor,” she said, quoting a verse from the Torah in Leviticus, or Vayikra, 19:18.
She also said she uses her faith as a guideline for moral and ethical dilemmas. Most of all, she finds that her Catholicism provides her with a strong sense of community.
“My favorite thing about Catholicism is that it’s so widespread in all the places I’ve been to, and that if I ever need help in any way I know that there is a church usually around that I can rely on,” said Dr. Basheer.
Learning and interacting with religions other than one’s own seems to have effects that studying one’s own religion cannot – even if that religion is Judaism. All of the teachers interviewed felt that their experiences at Shalhevet gave them inspiration for their own religions practice.
“I’ve marveled at how committed people are, and how seriously they take their faith,” said Ms. Fasules. She described a new-found understanding of “the importance of setting aside time to separate yourself, to get away from the world and contemplate – however you do it – the spiritual. That’s a really remarkable thing.”
Dr. Harris also feels that working at Shalhevet has strengthened his relationship with his own faith.
The years I was [in divinity school] were some of the best two years of my life. I was just studying Torah in a different way from in the beis midrash.
— Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg, Judaic Studies
“I think in a lot of senses over the years I’ve gotten closer to God,” he said. “However you want to define that, I’ve gotten closer to that, only because in many ways I’ve seen so many other people that I work with daily who are genuinely righteous people. So if the Chosen People are supposed to lead by example, well it’s worked. You have.
“It’s inspired me to live a better life, to be closer, to the acknowledgment that I exist as part of something that’s much, much bigger than anything I could possibly be as a human. And I think that that’s because I’m surrounded by religious people all day long.”
Would these same effects be felt by a Jewish teacher who taught in a non-Jewish religious environment? Judaic Studies teacher Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg said yes.
Rabbi Schwarzberg has spent years studying the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. From 2016 to 2021 he was Rabbi in Residence at Pepperdine University, where he taught classes, mentored students and represented Judaism at events.
Before that, in 2011 after receiving s’micha (rabbinic ordination) from YU, he earned a master’s degree in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School to learn more about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism and to study Judaism from an academic perspective.
“The years I was there were some of the best two years of my life,” Rabbi Schwarzberg said. “I was just studying Torah in a different way from in the beis midrash.”
He described it as “a meaningful experience for my own development as a human being,” and said that the more respectful, thoughtful discussions about religion that can be had, the better, because the many core values that span all religions, including kindness, prayer, caring for others and charity, connect everyone.
“The more that different religions work together, while respecting each other’s boundaries, the more it will help debunk people’s negative assumptions about the ‘other,’” Rabbi Schwarzberg said. “The more people respect one another, the better it is for the world.”