September 24, 2020

Book talk reflects on religion in Wellesley school system

Linda Wertheimer is the author of Faith Ed., Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance, which features the seventh grade curriculum at Wellesley Middle School. (Photo by Rachel Landau '17)

The issue of how to teach religion in schools will never go away. Strategies of teaching religion in schools range from all-encompassing required classes to a complete avoidance of the subject altogether. On Wednesday, October 14, Linda Wertheimer discussed this prevailing issue in her talk at Wellesley Books.

Wertheimer’s talk centered around her book, Faith Ed., Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance. Her book details the ways different schools around the country approach religion in education, and the varying results this education produces. In her presentation she focused specifically on a few schools, most notably the middle school’s famous incident at the Roxbury Mosque in May 2010 and its subsequent effects on the way WMS teaches religion.

The talk began with Wertheimer briefly describing the May 2010 controversy in which a few Wellesley Middle School students participated in a call to prayer at the Roxbury Mosque.

“This incident produced a lot of unwarranted anger towards the Wellesley school system, and it prompted me to look at how schools across the country deal with the topic of religion,” said Wertheimer.

She then went on to speak about why she chose to write the book. She explained that she had experienced anti-Semitism growing up as the only Jewish girl in her small-town Ohio school. Her experiences made her very attuned to the issue of religion’s presence in education.

Next, Wertheimer transitioned to talking about her experiences around the country, focusing on specific schools in Texas, Florida, and California.

“The variance in religious education strategies around the country is fascinating,” said Wertheimer. “Everywhere I went schools taught religion in completely different ways to vastly different age groups.”

Wertheimer then spent the next few minutes talking about specific students she interviewed back in 2010, during the school year that followed the controversy. She interviewed four sixth graders that year, while also interviewing a few seventh graders who went on the famous field trip. She focused specifically on her conversations with sixth graders Celia Golod ’17 and Zain Tirmizi ’17, now both juniors at WHS.

“Celia and Zain are the two kids from Wellesley who I really focus on in my book,” said Wertheimer. She continued on to describe her interviews with them and read excerpts from her book that featured Golod talking about her experiences growing up Jewish in Wellesley and Tirmizi speaking on his experiences growing up Muslim in Wellesley.

After Wertheimer finished that portion of her talk, she moved on to a discussion with Mr. Adam Blumer, director of the Social Studies department at Wellesley Middle School.

“I wanted my discussion with Adam to be the bulk of the presentation, because he clearly has great insight into the teaching of religion in Wellesley,” said Wertheimer.

Their discussion covered a host of topics: Blumer’s Jewish upbringing in a majority Christian town; Blumer’s involvement in organizing and leading the field trip to the Roxbury Mosque and the subsequent backlash he received, and also how that backlash affected the Social Studies curriculum; and the teaching of religion at WMS in general.

“We now go right at religion,” said Blumer. “We talk about the stereotypes surrounding Islam and Judaism, the history of each religion, and the relationships between them. We still go on field trips, but we are just more careful now about managing the behavior of our students.”

Following their discussion, Wertheimer and Blumer opened the dialogue to their audience, which consisted of parents and students from Wellesley and neighboring towns. Tirmizi was also in attendance with his parents, and representatives from the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland showed up as well.

The open dialogue highlighted the presentation. Parents peppered Wertheimer and Blumer with questions on topics including religious intolerance and explanations for ignorance regarding religion. Nearly all attendees participated, and Tirmizi spoke briefly about his experiences as a Muslim in Wellesley, as well as his involvement in Wertheimer’s book.

When asked later what he thought of the presentation, Tirmizi said, “I believe teaching about world religions really does help dispel stereotypes, while also acting as a good educational experience for kids. I’m impressed by Ms. Wertheimer’s commitment, and how she was able to bring together different stories from across the country to start a conversation on something I see as very worthwhile.”

(Zach Miller ’17, Features Editor)

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