Academic Programs

How Mayfield’s World Religions course approaches light in the darkest season

On this chilly December day, Michelle Gergen’s 12th-grade World Religions students are starting their unit on Judaism—right in the middle of Hanukkah. Serendipity? Not exactly. Although Ms. Gergen is a seasoned theology teacher, this is her first year teaching this class at Mayfield, and she’s using recently retired colleague Frank Karl’s general course plan. “So I have to give credit to Frank!” she laughs.
Ms. Gergen, who also teaches religion to sophomores, says that Mayfield students are definitely curious about other religions throughout their time at the school but don’t get to explore the intricacies and complexities of other faiths until their senior year. During the first moments of today’s class, Ms. Gergen acknowledges the magnitude of shared texts between the Christian and Jewish faiths. Soon after, the class breaks into groups to learn in more depth about the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Next week, students will make and share traditional Jewish recipes to mark the end of the eight-day Festival of Lights.

In future iterations of the course, Ms. Gergen imagines she may talk more about the plethora of religious celebrations that take place at this time of year, traditions practiced in the dark of winter, throughout time, and all over the world. “It’s a season to bring hope into,” she says. And, as Ms. Gergen talks about the holiness of the Jewish miracle of lights, she reminds her class of the importance of being a light bearer. “I think that's a really profound thing in this dark time of winter: to appreciate where light comes from, where we see it and where we find it,” she says.

Mia Maalouf ’22 has already found many new tools in approaching her spiritual experiences as a result of this class. “This course taught me that there is a whole world beyond my bubble,” she says. Mia sees the way the class has both reaffirmed her faith, but also made her more sensitive to others. “The World Religions course creates knowledgeable, well-informed, educated Mayfield graduates who are able to understand not only their own faith practice, but those of others as well,” she explains. 

Grace Sandman ‘22 echoes similar sentiments, “I have enjoyed hearing from my different peers about their experiences with other religions that they may practice.” And Grace finds the class piques her academic interest too. “History is my favorite subject,” she says, “so learning about different religions and the history behind them was interesting to me.” 

Having students able to see the connections—rather than the divisions—between religions is something that Ms. Gergen is keen to emphasize throughout her teaching. “Light illuminating the dark is something that's held in multiple faiths,” she says, then adds with emphasis, “We use light in Advent!”  

When the class gathers again next week to share their Jewish delicacies, Ms. Gergen wants the lessons of Hanukkah and Advent to play double duty. While students enjoy their delectable bounty, she also asks them to bring toys for kids at South Central LAMP as part of the Mayfield Toy Drive. Both Jewish and Christian faiths focus on giving in this season, giving gifts and giving light. It feels meaningful to Ms. Gergen that the very name of the charitable organization for this toy drive (LAMP) is about light as well. Ms. Gergen wants the students to understand lessons inherent in these faith traditions, saying, “If they really want to see themselves as generous, kind people, they've got to give, and carve out that time to do that for others.” She wants everyone in the class to celebrate their festivities fully, by all means, but she adds, “a celebration that only includes us is a selfish tradition.”

Part of today’s instruction will delve into the historical underpinnings of the concepts of hospitality—the ancient religious laws that explicitly deal with generosity—and how that was a matter of life and death for people living in the desert. But it’s also clear how these practices continue to inform the way we practice our faith now, especially in our celebrations.

“It's about light,” says Ms. Gergen. “We're going to celebrate light.”
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.