icymi: middle schoolers are ahead of the game

Rebbe says: Do not look to the container; rather, to what it contains. There are new containers filled with [the] old, and old containers that have even new within them. (Pirkei Avot 4:20).

6th Graders from M.S. 890

Rebbe’s message in this passage is this: human beings can learn and teach at any age. While we might scorn a young teacher, we might be surprised to find wisdom there. And while we might dismiss an elderly person, we might discover a new insight if we take the time to listen.

The “containers” at New York City’s public Middle School 890 in the Ditmas Park / Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn were certainly polished: students in School Counselor (and NYU alumna) Caroline Turner’s Forum on Religion Committee dressed festively and professionally for the First Annual Forum on Religion just a few weeks ago. Bright-eyed and enthusiastic, they offered tours to a panel of seven religious professionals and committed laypersons representing seven distinct faith traditions.

Public Schools in our city often shy away from discussions on religion, preferring to skirt the potential conflicts that can come from charged, values-based discussions in such a diverse setting. At MS890, however, the students themselves recognized that sometimes avoiding talking about religion leaves too much room for misunderstanding and discrimination. For example, one eleven-year-old self-identified Muslim boy lamented that some of his peers, influenced by a polarizing media, assume that all Muslims are terrorists. Others worried about the perception that all Christians oppose gay folks. The children’s questions and concerns demonstrated a wisdom beyond what one might assume from their youth.

“Can you describe your unique experiences of growing up in your religious community?” “As an adult, what motivated you to do the work you are doing now?” “What is the big misconception about your religion that you want people to expel?”

With clipboards in hand to record the panel’s responses, the entire student body of the newly-opened MS890, with the support of Ms. Turner and of their principal, Nicholas Frangella (also an NYU alumnus), listened actively. They laughed, nodded, and snapped in agreement (a few comments about women’s inclusion in religious leadership garnered many snaps, as did NYU alum and panelist Afraz Khan’s lauding of those students visibly dressed to honor their religious faith). I expected fidgeting and staring into space, laughter and inattention; instead, I was met with interested, smiling faces, thoughtful questions, and students eager to learn how adults navigate their relationship to spirituality, ethics, and values.

6th Graders from M.S. 890

Old wine in new bottles, and new wine in old: our rabbis taught us that we can all learn and teach at different stages in our lives. The students of MS890 give me hope for the future of this city and our world. Let’s drink to their success.

Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi is the Reform Rabbi and Senior Jewish Educator at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU.