Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso has written 10 books in 10 years that foster the spiritual life of children and their parents. Her books have received numerous awards and are endorsed by Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish religious leaders. Several have been translated into Spanish, German, Italian, and Hebrew.
We find her stories to be inspirational, creative, ethically challenging, and, best of all, multifaith classics. She has found many ways to draw out the innate curiosity and spirituality of youngsters. Children respond by asking questions and sharing how her stories relate to their own experiences. For parents, the books are godsends, helping them talk naturally and openly about the spiritual life.
Given the dangerous times we live in and the ethical disarray that characterizes many families, cities, and nations, Sasso is providing an inestimable moral service by modeling hospitality and openness across religious lines. The common ground she consistently encourages is made up of small acts of kindness and generosity.
We wish we had been able to sit in our homes as children savoring these stories and receiving their guidance on so many matters of supreme importance. Sandy Eisenberg Sasso has done pioneering work bringing the spiritual practices of wonder, kindness, faith, and imagination alive for today’s children and their grateful parents.
Sasso’s breakthrough book and one of our very favorites, God’s Paintbrush, is now being released in a Special 10th Anniversary Edition, which includes a special note to parents. In this interview, provided by her very supportive publisher, Jewish Lights, Sasso discusses the complexity — and joy — that comes with helping children develop their spiritual selves.
ARE CHILDREN INHERENTLY SPIRITUAL?
Like adults, children are spiritual seekers; they come to us with an innate spirituality. What they don’t have is the language to express it. Religious education for children, including spiritual writing, should give them the language, the tools they need to reflect and explore their spiritual experiences. Spiritual experience is a given; spiritual awareness must be learned or it will remain dormant for a lifetime.
WHY ARE ADULTS RELUCTANT TO TALK WITH CHILDREN ABOUT SPIRITUALITY?
We tend to think young children aren’t old enough for conversations about religion, that they aren’t able to engage in a spiritual life, aren’t ready to deal with the big questions of life’s meaning and purpose.
Often, this is because we have lost faith ourselves and don’t know where to find it. We don’t know what to believe in anymore, so what can we possibly tell our children?
The truth is that from the time they are born, our children have the gift of faith — a soul — and if we take their hand on the journey we just might find our own faith again.
TRADITIONALLY, WHAT HAS BEEN THE ROLE OF RELIGIOUS EDUCATION?
Very often religious education has focused on teaching information, the mastery of a body of knowledge. But our children are more than minds — they each have a soul. Research in children’s spirituality has found the place children are least likely to feel comfortable exploring spirituality is in religious institutions. We have to help them. We have to change this.
WHAT LANGUAGE DOES ONE USE WHEN TALKING TO CHILDREN ABOUT RELIGIOUS CONCEPTS? THEOLOGY CAN GET BOGGED DOWN IN COMPLEX IDEAS AND DIFFICULT WORDS.
When talking to our children about God, we do not need to simplify the concept, only the language. When I write for children about the spiritual, I strive for a language that is clear, rich in metaphor and symbol, concrete and with personal relevance to them, and open to a continuing conversation.
DO CHILDREN WRESTLE WITH DEFINING GOD?
Some of the children I have encountered were being taught there was a right way to call God and a wrong way. They were right and everyone else was wrong. I was struck by the Jewish teaching that God is like a mirror and everyone who looks into it sees a different face. It is what inspired me to write a story I called In God’s Name.
Before I read In God’s Name to children I ask them what their favorite name for God is. They choose the names they have been taught by their parents or in their religious communities. Often they say Father, Adonai, Hashem. Then I read In God’s Name. Afterwards, I ask again what is their favorite name for God. Most frequently they say Mother, Friend.
At Yom Kippur Family Service one year I read In God’s Name to my congregation. A child whose mother had been battling breast cancer since he was one year old said, "My favorite name for God is 'Healer.' " Once they are given permission to speak what they feel, children will name God out of their experience, their place.
DON’T RELIGION AND SPIRITUALITY FORM THE BASIS OF RIGHT AND WRONG, GOOD AND BAD?
When we say the good are rewarded and the bad are punished, our children often initially understand that having a "good life" is a sign of God’s blessing and having a "bad life" is a sign of God’s disapproval. What then do we say to the child whose family does good, but still suffers from poverty, illness, misfortune? What do we say when our children grow up and relinquish responsibility for helping others because they blame others for their own misfortune?
When we say that our faith is superior to others, that it is the only right way to salvation, our children internalize that the beliefs of others are wrong.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RELIGION AND SPIRITUALITY?
Spirituality is a mode of living in the awareness of the divine presence, the sacred. It is the recognition of the transcendent, a sense of life’s interconnectedness. The spiritual life is rooted in experience, encounters with the self, others, and the world.
Religion acts as the container for the life of the spirit. It is the gravity that anchors the spirit to earth, translating the vision of the soul into the responsibility of the individual and the mandate of the community.
In the best of all possible worlds, spirituality and religion are partners. The soul’s most profound experiences with a presence greater than the self are given form and articulation through liturgy, ritual, and moral law. Religious forms, in turn, remain constantly open to the renewal of sacred moments.
FOR TEN YEARS, PARENTS, EDUCATORS AND OTHER ADULTS HAVE USED YOUR BOOK GOD’S PAINTBRUSH TO OPEN UP CONVERSATIONS WITH CHILDREN ABOUT GOD AND SPIRITUALITY. HOW DOES THIS WORK?
Each of the vignettes in the book end with a question. The first publisher I approached said, "We like the book but there’s just one thing — take out the questions." "Why?" I asked. "Parents are afraid of the conversation. They won’t buy the book," he assured me. Against better judgment I took out the questions. He still didn’t publish the book.
I sent the book to Jewish Lights without the questions. Its publisher said, "We love the book. There is just one thing — could you put in questions?" I knew I had found the right publisher.
As adults we feel we need to have all the answers, to be in control, to find a solution to every problem. But children realize that they can’t control everything and that the world is filled with mystery. Children aren’t afraid of questions without answers until we make them afraid. Books of faith ought to be filled more with awe than answers. Problems arise when we give the impression that there is one answer, we have it, and everyone else is wrong.
HOW DO YOU SEE YOUR ROLE IN HELPING CHILDREN DEVELOP THEIR SPIRITUALITY? ARE YOU A RABBI, AN EDUCATOR, A NURTURER? ARE YOU A STORYTELLER?
I am all of these things, and so is any adult who wants to help a child become a spiritual person (okay, not everyone’s a rabbi). I write stories for children about faith because I believe the native language for children is story. Stories help children grapple with deep spiritual matters. When they enter the story and talk to us about what part of the story is about them we catch a glimpse of their souls.
MANY PEOPLE CONSIDER YOU THE PREMIER EXPERT ON CHILDREN’S SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT? DO YOU?
I am certainly not the expert on the spirituality of the children. YOU are, if your heart is open to remembering your own earliest encounters with the God who plays hide and seek with us. If you are open to listening to that presence in your own past, then you can also listen for it in the precious lives in your care.
Think back to your own childhood. Capture in your mind a time when you came close to the mystery of the presence of God. Help children find that time in their own lives and remember it.
WHAT ARE SOME POINTERS YOU CAN GIVE THAT WILL HELP ADULTS WHO WANT TO HELP CHILDREN GROW SPIRITUALLY?
1. Encouraging the religious imagination in children requires us to nurture it in ourselves. Spend time reading and learning about your religious tradition, about faith. Live your faith. Talking about God makes more sense when people also engage in living God. Let your children join you in expressions of care, gratitude, and hospitality.
2. Children want to know what you think, not what some "expert" thinks. Don’t be afraid of the conversation.
3. Create an everyday spiritual world — where symbols, rituals, objects are as familiar as Happy Meals and teddy bears, where religious personalities and biblical characters are as commonplace as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
4. Don’t preach! Tell stories. Allow children to act out the story and to retell it in their own words. Create an environment where children get to tell their stories. Don’t tell them what the story means — let them develop their own relationship for the narrative and tell you what it means to them. Let them find their place in the story, the place it connects to their lives.
5. Belong to a community where people live the stories of faith. Children need coaches not just for soccer; they need spiritual mentors for life.
6. Don’t say what you later have to correct. Don’t talk down to children. They are deep theologians. The theology of the books you read to children should also be satisfying to you as adults.
7. Let them know you approve their doubts, questions, challenges. Encourage searching.
8. Make time for prayer, for silence. Teachers ask 400 questions per day. They answer 80 percent of them. We abhor a vacuum; whenever there is a silence we rush to fill it up. At quiet times, children give us a glimpse of something precious, eternal: their souls. They need intentional quiet to remain in touch with their spirit.
Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, award-winning author of inspiring books for children of all faiths and backgrounds, is a parent, spiritual leader, and storyteller appreciated in many countries. There are over 300,000 copies of her books in print in English, German, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew. The second woman to be ordained as a rabbi (1974) and the first rabbi to become a mother, she and her husband, Dennis, were the first rabbinical couple to jointly lead a congregation — Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis. They have two children, David and Debora. Sasso, who holds a doctorate in ministry, is active in the interfaith community, and has written and lectured on the renewal of spirituality, women and religion, and the discovery of the religious imagination in children of all faiths.