Peninsula students probe interfaith panel
By Rebecca Villaneda
Thursday, January 7, 2010 11:13 AM PST
Rabbi Yitzchok Magalnic of the Chabad Jewish Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, visited Palos Verdes High School teacher Bryce Stoddard’s comparative religion class on Tuesday, Jan. 5. Magalnic shared his beliefs of Judaism. On Jan. 12, students from both PV High and Peninsula High School will pose questions to clergy people of different faiths as part of the Dawn Unity Group’s Interfaith Discovery Series.
Peninsula and Palos Verdes high school students will take their comparative religion lessons to the real world in a panel discussion with persons who represent various faiths.
Questions regarding beliefs, traditions, the afterlife and views on controversial subjects such as abortion and homosexuality will be on the tips of the curious teenagers’ tongues.
The discussion, open to the public, is hosted by the Dawn Unity Group and will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 12 at Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay at 7:30 p.m.
Bob Rothman, chair of Dawn Unity, said the idea behind the evening’s program is to spread knowledge about people and their neighbors’ faiths.
“We thought that having the students ask the questions would put a different perspective on it because … it would come from the younger generation — the ones who are studying religion,” Rothman said.
Having taught comparative religion since 1967, Jim Maechling said there was a time when his class was only one of two in the United States being taught in a public school.
“That’s really a controversial issue because most teachers have always been afraid to introduce religion, because they don’t want to cross the line of advocacy,” he said, adding that his class was featured on the “The News Hour” with Jim Lehrer.
“I don’t think the Founding Fathers meant that God should not be mentioned in the school; what they didn’t want … is … any one teacher advocating any one faith,” Maechling said. “Look around. [At] the last check there was, like, over 38 languages spoken at PENHI … Don’t you think it’s important to get inside the belief systems and mentalities of where these other people come from?
“I think that as time has gone on, I’ve become more of a religious pluralist because I believe that all cultures and all religions have something to add,” he continued.
Bryce Stoddard, incidentally, had Maechling as a teacher years ago and he now teaches the same course at PV High.
“Ultimately, interfaith is something that is unique in a lot of communities,” Stoddard said. “The fact that rabbis and pastors are getting together and talking about faith and all the issues surrounding it, [it’s] bridging differences and broadening understanding, and for young people who are so full of questions, it’s an excellent opportunity for them to ask those questions.”
Stoddard expressed that it’s the speakers he invites to his class who make the biggest impression on the students. This past Tuesday, he welcomed Rabbi Yitzchok Magalnic from the Chabad Jewish Center in Rancho Palos Verdes to discuss Judaism to his students.
“As a teacher, there’s a line that we can’t cross, so we have to teach it very objectively … It’s really the speakers that come in and [are] really genuine with the kids in terms of their faith, and really share why they believe what they believe,” Stoddard said. “Not that they push it but, in a sense, they can. They can go places with the students that we can’t.”
While some of Stoddards’ and Maechlings’ students grew up with one or even two religions, others expressed they were atheist but since taking the course, they’ve come to appreciate their peers’ beliefs.
“I’m an agnostic … and I never really understood the essential difference between religion,” said PENHI student Jessica Sosnovskaya. “I never understood where the boundary was … but taking this class, I realized that it’s not just some invisible belief — it’s a way of life for people who don’t know anything else. For me, it was very unusual … but it was remarkable to glimpse into the world of people who see totally different from you but they look like you and they speak like you.”
“I went to a Catholic school for nine years of my life; I didn’t even know what Judaism was until I was 11,” said Ted Johnson, also a PENHI student. “This class has helped me open up my mind and sort of see all sorts of religions. It’s really helped me [understand people too].”
Clergy on the panel the evening of Jan. 12 will be Monsignor Joseph Brennan, Rev. Jonathan Chute, Rabbi Isaac Jeret and Rev. John Morehouse. The program will be the first of its kind with students asking the questions.
“I think religion is good for people … to be so devoted to something, to love something so much,” PENHI student Olivia de Jesus said. “I’m not religiously affiliated in any way, but this class has really helped me learn that.”
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