“God doesn’t exist,” I told my grandparents before my bat mitzvah. I still wanted to have my bat mitzvah, and I did find meaning and joy in Jewish life. So why did I upset my poor Bubbe and Zayde right before our simcha? The short answer…I was 13.

Young teens—even as they prepare for benei mitzvah—question everything they have been taught and push back against authority and hypocrisy. At this unique moment in spiritual development, they see a conflict between the literalist and anthropomorphic God ideas they grew up with and their emerging rationalist approach to understanding the world.

Teens know what they don’t believe, yet need support in figuring out what they could believe. When students ask, “Who invented God?” or declare, “I am an atheist,” educators need to recognize that students are actually inviting us to talk with them about God.

This period of spiritual development represents so much potential for transformative Jewish education! Yet Jewish day schools often miss this moment, hiding behind the what and how of Jewish prayer and text study without tackling the why and who of God and Torah.

In some respects, teaching about God sometimes feels like the wild west of Jewish education. There are few materials, pedagogies, and methods of assessments for teachers to draw upon. And let’s face it—talking about God can be uncomfortable. It is personal and often difficult to navigate.

As a result, students lack the time, space, and guidance at school to question, explore, and develop ideas about divinity. Without these resources, our children will most often accept the simplest solutions that offend them the least. They assert that God doesn’t exist or worse—they parrot back what they think teachers want to hear.

God-Wrestling in Middle School

The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked: “Where does God dwell?” He replied, “Wherever you let God in.” We must ask ourselves: How can we “let God in” at school in ways that give students room to grapple personally with the nature of God, their experiences of God, and their definition of their relationship with God?

This article will describe a two-year program to let God into the lives of middle school students. With support from the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, I collaborated with musician and educator Eliana Light to develop and pilot a program with my middle school students at the B’nai Shalom Day School where I am a rabbi and middle school Judaics teacher. 

In each of the two years, for ten weeks, our program included classroom learning and connected tefillah experiences. Iyun time gave students the opportunity to learn about and reflect on tefillah, while tefillah time was an opportunity to focus on the heart after learning about prayer intellectually.

We aimed to create an intellectually and spiritually rich space for students to:

  • reflect deeply on their understanding of God,
  • articulate a developing personal relationship with the Divine, and
  • radically expand their portfolio of Jewish ideas that can inform and ground their personal God relationship.

Throughout, we considered our people’s identity as Benei Yisrael, children of one who wrestled with God. We asked students to consider and embrace “God-wrestler” as one of their names and identities. The message: If you struggle with God, don’t worry—it’s what Jews do.

Year One: Big Ideas about God

The first year introduced students to the idea of God-wrestling and explored major concepts and big ideas. We challenged students to personally explore the question “What do we mean when we say the word ‘G!D’?” Students expanded their vocabulary for talking about God and encountered diverse ideas about God that might feel authentic to their personal experiences.

Giving students permission to be honest and/or unsure about God concepts that don’t work for them was crucial. At the outset, we let students know that this “class” on God was not indoctrination. “This course won’t demand that you believe something you don’t believe,” we told them. This allowed a shared sacred space in which to have genuine and impactful discussions.

A digital G?D Question Box and student journals gave students multiple and ongoing ways to express themselves. Student questions served as ongoing assessments and we used them to shape learning. Several of our most popular sessions emerged from student interest, including Gendered God Language, and of course, “Who invented God?”

In planning, we realized that teaching abstract ideas to this age group would be challenging and decided that hearing stories from exemplars might make these ideas more relatable. To that end, we amassed a video library of rabbis, musicians, and artists discussing their ideas about God from childhood onward. Interviewees modeled diverse ways of relating to, believing in, experiencing, and talking about God. Each talked about how they felt about God as a 13-year-old and how their God ideas have developed and changed throughout their lives.

We frequently used music and art to enable students to make meaning for themselves using their creative, emotional, and spiritual capacities. Music and art also served to make complex ideas accessible and memorable. Eliana’s song “Skyman,” for example, describes how hard it can be to get beyond imagining God as a “Dude in the sky.” This song is catchy which helped “Dude in the sky” become part of our vernacular for discussing God. We also made use of visual arts. After studying the kaddish and limits of language to capture the limitless, students created a visual midrash on the word L’Elah, fulfilling our goal of including opportunities for play and creativity.

Year Two: God & Tefillah

The second year gave students multiple avenues to explore and strengthen their relationship with God through tefillah. We organized the course around the following essential question: How might we use tefillah in order to connect with God or to respond to God-filled experiences?

We built on the previous year’s learning by 1) anchoring big ideas to words in the siddur and 2) deepening students’ ability to use these ideas meaningfully in their lives.

We began by examining the nature of tefillah itself. We asked: What is prayer and why do humans do it? Why do Jews do it? Why do we use prayers other people wrote instead of writing our own prayers? Where does God fit into all of this? In the second half of the course, students learned how to identify and make use of the theological ideas in each section of the Amidah. We explored various ways to think about God’s powers, our aspirations to both feel kedusha and to act with kedusha, and the power of making prayer personal.

Though text study played a key role in both years of the curriculum, it took on a new intensity in the second year of learning. We took deep dives into student questions, and examined the context of quotes from the Tanakh found in the liturgy to enrich students’ understanding of the purpose and meaning of prayers.

In tefillah, we wanted students to be able to connect the words in the siddur with their personal emotions and needs of the moment. I would often daven parts of the Amidah aloud in order to demonstrate how to make tefillah personal. I would chant the Hebrew in the siddur and spontaneously add English that 1) translates the meanings into relatable “kid” language and 2) adds a personal connection. For example, “Blessed are you Adonai who is forgiving, and as God forgives us we should also be forgiving, even though it’s really really hard and today I need to work on that .…hanun hamarbeh lisloah.” This method of God and tefillah education enables students to experience personal prayer. They can pray along with my personal prayers and eventually imitate what I do on their own.

Relational God Education

Before this pilot, we did teach about God and tefillah at our school—God is a part of learning about prayer, Talmud Torah, and practice. This initiative, however, allowed us to create a relational God education approach, which puts the relationship between the student and God at the center. Here, I am both influenced by and indebted to Barry Chazan, particularly his “Relational Philosophy of Israel Education.”

The following is a framework of stances and ideas that both guided our approach and emerged from what we learned in the process.

  1. The aim of this approach to God education is the development of each student’s ability to relate to God throughout their lives.
  2. The job of the educator is to structure learning in a way that helps students grapple personally with these questions. It is not to give “answers.” Willingness to be vulnerable, creative, and open to diverse perspectives enables educators to engage in this type of work.
  3. Music and art engage emotions and inspire students to make meaning for themselves using their creative, emotional, and spiritual capacities.
  4. Iyun and tefillah, study and practice, reinforce one another to build richer understandings and prayer experiences. Tefillot incorporate ideas from study. Experiences with tefillah find their way back to the classroom. Tefillot give students a chance to try new ideas and put new understandings into practice.
  5. Jewish life, community, and wisdom—found in both books and people—serve as anchors that enable teens to develop autonomous Jewish beliefs. Developing a relationship with God takes place in the context of Jewish life as a whole.
  6. Students need to encounter diverse voices and varied theologies as they search for ways to relate to God that resonate with their experiences.

Students who are struggling, asking increasingly impossible questions, giving inconsistent answers, and trying on new ideas—these are the markers of God-education that is working.


Middle schoolers’ growth is so rapid that sometimes we can see shifts in student attitudes and language about prayer and God over the course of the two-year program. A sixth-grade student, for instance, wrote with openness and excitement about a new idea she had encountered about the nature of God, “This is very different from the classical idea of g-d as a being. This might actually be my idea of g-d. I really don’t completely know yet, but it’s a possibility!”

Nurturing a relationship with God is one of the biggest gifts we can give our teens. God education can be transformative, turning black and white thinkers about God into Jews who understand that there are many names for God and many ways we can experience and relate to God throughout our lives.

Rebecca Ben-Gideon is an innovative educator with expertise in pedagogies that emphasize personal meaning-making, Rabbi Ben-Gideon is a graduate of Harvard and the Jewish Theological Seminary and recently earned a certificate in Israel Education from George Washington University. She currently serves as Rabbi-in-Residence at B’nai Shalom Day School (Greensboro, NC) and will be moving to Roslyn, New York.

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