MY PERSONAL COMPASS ESSAY: Life and Death in the Classroom

"Professor Janowitz, can you write me a letter of recommendation?"

Each time I receive this request, I pause for a moment: Is this a good path for this student?

In this case, the e-mailed request gave me misgivings. I had recently returned from a three-year stint as Director of the UC Education Abroad Program in Israel. The e-mail was from Marla, now graduated from Berkeley and wanting to return to Jerusalem for an M.A. program at Hebrew University. My sons remembered her instantly, her energetic and sweet presence with a California smile enthusiastic enough to make some people wary (though in Marla's case it was totally sincere). Returning was her choice, so I wrote the letter.

Later in the academic year when I heard that a bomb had gone off in the overseas students' cafeteria at Hebrew University, out of some odd inner compulsion I checked around on the Web. Word came quickly -- no UC students were hurt. But later that night I got a call from our Education Abroad Program assistant in Jerusalem that Marla had not been heard from since the bomb went off.

I was confused and shocked. My husband and I searched the Web for news until early the next morning when her death was confirmed. Only a few days away from returning to California, she had been sitting at one of the tables right near the bomb. Dental records were needed to identify the body.

This event returns to me often, as I enter a classroom at the beginning of the quarter, as I meet a young student with her smile – I remember getting the news, arranging to fly to San Diego for the funeral and the agony of telling her parents stories about Marla which could now only speak of the past.

As I tell my students, the texts we study are not simply black words on white pages. They contain ideas which flow in our veins so we can live and yet threaten to consume us. In order to have a future we must study them. Are all religions basically similar or are some completely different? How can people have so many different ideas about what is true and good? Is religion the source of morality or a denial of individual responsibility and a call to violence?

The study of comparative religion raises the most important questions we face as humans. What would you die for? What would you ask someone else to kill for? I want my students to have the ability to think critically, the mental flexibility to change their minds, and the courage to identify more strongly with their enemy's children than to hate the parents. In my classroom I want them to consider life and death and choose life.

Naomi Janowitz is a professor of religious studies.

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