The life-saving mitzvah of helping disabled children, and all children, to learn to swim is a mitzvah. The church providing the use of their pool is also a mitzvah in my book, you won't need to use the sanctuary. A pool's a pool (except when it's a mikveh, which is a very different kind of question).
Mixed gender swimming restrictions are followed by some Orthodox Jews to avoid being drawn into sexual transgression, primarily the ultra-Orthodox emphasize the issue of gender alure under such circumstances. The rest of us emphasize developing self-control. If your path is in Orthodoxy then working out how to do this mitzvah needs to be discussed with your rabbi or rebbe. Otherwise, by all means represent our people's mitzvah-centered ways by wearing a modest swim suit and then, with healthy boundaries of your own, dive right in to help out!
There are many approaches that we may take in addressing your question concerning your son’s desire to help disabled children. Our approach will not address strictly halakhic (Jewish legal) ramifications or concerns, as I believe that your son’s desire is approaching the entire matter from the standpoint of ‘hasadim tovim’—deeds of loving-kindness and ‘tov la-Shamayim v’tov la-be-ree-ot’—goodness for the sake of Heaven and goodness for the sake of humankind.
All of this is to be applauded.
At times, perhaps we must look at a particular situation as a lifeguard at the beach or as a physician who when confronted with a set of circumstances where saving a life or examining a patient would involve a lack of ‘tze-nee-oot’—religious modesty. ‘Pee-ku-ah nefesh do-kheh ha-kol’—saving a life takes precedence over all other concerns.
Much can be said about the status of Christianity and the entering of a church. The question is fundamentally rooted in questions of alien worship or ‘avodah zarah.’ Throughout the ages our rabbinic sages have struggled with the place of Christianpty and Islam. Christianity has often been seen as more problematic because of the Trinitarian belief, known in Jewish sources as ‘shee-toof’—that is, defining God as having additional partnerships. Of course, this issue does not apply in Islam.
All in all, Christianity seems, according to some, to fit in a category that permits ‘shee-toof’ for non-Jews, but not to Jews. This means that the practice of Christianity is permissible for Gentiles, but never for Jews. That being said, belief in Judaism requires the complete unity of God, as we proclaim twice each day in the ‘Shema’—‘Hear, O Israel, God our Lord, God is One.’ (Deuteronomy 6)
In any case, your son does not desire to enter a church sanctuary or to worship in a church, rather his desire is to aid disabled children in their rehabilitation in a swimming pool. This is hardly crossing a line approaching apostasy whether real or imagined.
When speaking of mixed swimming pools, there are also different approaches. Especially in your son’s instance, one can see the pool as a rehabilitation facility where he is present to assist needy individuals in their development.
All of the above is by way of reviewing some of the Jewish views pertaining to these matters, but in no way delivering the final word halakhically. That is not the purpose of this response.
There is a further rabbinic concept which is vital to all of our dealings with the non-Jewish world. This is known as ‘meep-nei darkei shalom’—in pursuit of the paths of peace. This is fundamental to all matters both halakhic and not ,when it comes to decision-making when living in a multicultural society as we do.
There is also the idea of ‘ha-sei-khel ha-yashar’—simply put—using ‘good common sense.’
When your son’s desire is to do a ‘ma’aseh to’v’—a good deed, you ought support his efforts and not look for possible negative implications. This is especially true in order that he opens up to you about what he is planning and does not shut the door to the father-son relationship that you enjoy.
You have raised two concerns regarding your son’s wishes to volunteer to help disabled children in a program that takes them in a pool in a local church; first - the permissibility of entering a church, and second - the question of mixed swimming.
On the question of entering a church, I refer you to the four teshuvot posted on Jewish Values Online in response to the question: Is a Jew permitted to enter a church, mosque, cathedral, temple, or the site of any other faith?There you will find an excellent treatment of this question from a variety of points of view.
In addition, in The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews, edited by Martin S. Cohen, in a chapter entitled: “Interfaith Relations,” Jeremy Kalmanofsky puts this question in a broader context and suggests that while a Jewish person may not practice Christianity, a Jewish person may enter a church as a guest during a worship service, and may certainly enter a church building “for wholly secular purposes, like meetings or public events (p.738).”
I could not tell from your question whether your son is an adult, or a child.If your son is not an adult, there would be no reason not to allow him to volunteer in this program unless you feel that your son would be spiritually uncomfortable as a Jewish person in that setting.If he is an adult, and he wishes to participate, there is no reason to object to his volunteering in the program.
As to the question of mixed gender swimming, several sources and values must be considered:
The prophet, Micah reminds us: "He has told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you; to do justice, and love mercy, and walk modestly (hatzne’ah lechet) with Your God (Micah 6:8)."Tzniuit, modesty, is a value often overlooked in life. Human dignity is related to our treatment of body, as well as of soul.
Whether mixed swimming in a particular context might be regarded as a negation of the value of tzniut, modesty, is very much dependent on communal norms.Many observant Jewish people would regard most swimwear as appropriate garb at a beach or at a pool, and would also consider swimming on a beach or in a pool, mixed or otherwise, as appropriate, especially if it is for therapeutic purposes.It seems to me that the program you are describing might well fall under that rubric.
Your son is to be commended for his desire to be of help to those in need, and there should be no objection whatsoever to your son’s volunteering in the program. The fact is that your son wishes to do a mitzvah in helping disabled children, and in doing so as Jewish person, your son also brings honor to the Jewish people.
While the Talmud and subsequent commentaries indicate that a Jew is not supposed to enter a church, that is not a prohibition that is meaningful for Reform Jews. In fact many Reform synagogues work in partnership with churches. As the website of my synagogue, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, makes clear: we are “part of ONE LA-IAF, a broad-based non-partisan organization of dues-paying member congregations (both Jewish and Christian), schools, unions, and non-profits committed to building power for sustainable social and economic change.” To do this work, we gather as communities in each other’s buildings, including churches and synagogues, for public meetings with elected official. Congregants of each religious community get to know each other and work together to make our community better. In addition, over the years we have been engaged in dialogue with individual churches and mosques, and we encourage our congregants and young adults to visit the worship experiences of our partner congregation as part of our synagogue education program to learn about other religious traditions. In my experience, engaging in dialogue with people from other faiths actually strengthens one’s own Jewish identity. Therefore, it is certainly not only acceptable but admirable for someone to want to help disabled children by teaching them to swim whether or not the pool is in a church. The only caveat would be if the intention of the swimming lessons were for the purpose of proselytizing, but it is clear from the question that this does not appear to be the case. The issue of mixed swimming is simply not problem for Reform Jews.
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