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I teach hundreds of students every year. I try as hard as I can to get to know them, even though some of them are a few thousand miles away and I might never meet them in person. To get to know them, I assign a standard survey with the same questions I’ve been asking for 15 years. One of the questions I ask each year is to tell me three interesting things about themselves. The answers I receive stretch from “I play football” to “I speak eight languages.” Every once in a while, a student surprises me with an interesting tidbit about themselves I hadn’t heard before, but for the most part, “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

It isn’t often, but every few years a student will write that they’re an atheist. This is a bold statement because the student knows that I’m a rabbi and have dedicated my life to bringing my students closer to G-d. Writing “I’m an atheist” to answer a rabbi’s question to tell me something interesting about yourself is the “shot-across-the-bow” equivalent to a student telling their vegan teacher they love steak. It’s not just a call for attention, it’s a call to arms. A student writing “I’m an atheist” to their rabbi-teacher is telegraphing, “I’m looking for a debate, bring it on.” I’m sure psychologists would posit that the student is actually calling out for help or attention, but I’m not a psychologist, and smart educators and rabbis don’t pretend they know psychology just because they teach adolescents.


As an educator and rabbi, my inner voice screams, “Take the atheist on! Go for the debate! You’ve studied this before, you have written and taught about G-d’s existence hundreds of times. You’ll convince the student there is a G-d and convince all the other students as well!” Yet, I know better. I know the student hasn’t developed the intellectual maturity to truly investigate whether G-d exists or not. For whatever reason, the student finds it more appealing to claim to be an atheist than to maintain there is a G-d. Debating, educating or trying to persuade this student won’t succeed in moving them to be convinced there is a G-d. In all likelihood, engaging on the topic of G-d’s existence with them will solidify their claims.

I loathe generalizing, but most teenagers reach a conclusion about G-d’s existence before asking themselves what qualifies as a metric they’d accept as sufficiently convincing. They simply conclude that if they can’t sense G-d physically (seeing or hearing G-d), there is no G-d. Not only are they unaware of how many places, events and personalities they accept as existing or have existed without physical evidence of their existence, they haven’t even considered that such factors exist. Teenagers, for the most part – and there are exceptions – do not possess the intellectual development necessary to contemplate complex abstract questions like G-d’s existence. An educator can’t engage a student with facts and figures if the student hasn’t developed the skills to understand how to properly weigh the facts.

There will always be atheists and they will always have rationalizations that allow them to answer the challenges their position forces on them. They will claim survival of the fittest, metaverse, and coincidence. These answers aren’t the teenage atheist’s reason for claiming there is no G-d. Showing that these answers lack logic won’t help them, it’ll push them further down. Instead of challenging the teenage Jewish atheist, show them you care for them, validate their doubts, and begin to help them think methodologically. Once they begin to think in a clearer fashion, they’ll be open to hearing about G-d.

Many mistakenly think a rabbi’s role is to draw a student close to G-d “by hook or by crook,” but nothing could be further from the truth. A rabbi’s primary role is to be there for their students when they need them. A student doesn’t feel their rabbi is there for them when the rabbi debates them; they feel a connection to the rabbi when they know the rabbi cares for them where they are – not where the rabbi wants them to be. An educator’s role is to teach their students, not to indoctrinate them. Most importantly, a teacher instructs students not what to think, but how to think. By teaching a student a methodology of thought, the student can weigh factors themselves and reach conclusions in a logical manner. There is no greater gift a teacher can give their student. I can’t be sure my educational and theological philosophy will transform my atheist students into maintaining there is a G-d, but I am confident debating my students will completely fail.


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Rabbi Uri Pilichowski is an educator who teaches in high schools across the world. He teaches Torah and Israel political advocacy to teenagers and college students. He lives with his wife and six children in Mitzpe Yericho, Israel. You can follow him on Facebook, and on twitter @rationalsettler.