Muslim-Jewish Middle School Encounters: A Beginning
For the past five years, Sinai Akiba Academy, an ECC-8th grade day school in Los Angeles, has partnered with New Horizon School, a K-8 Muslim day school, for two full days of cross-cultural exchange. Before launching the Day School Exchange in 2011, with the support of a consultant from NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, we spent a full school year visioning and laying the groundwork for what this encounter might look like. The heads of school from New Horizon School and Sinai Akiba Academy as well as teachers from each school met to set joint goals for the program. Our specific goals were to learn about and present our own history and religious tradition to others, to understand the ethnic and religious diversity in the Los Angeles community, and to strengthen ties between our local Muslim and Jewish communities. In these meetings between our schools, we also explicitly stated that we would not talk about Israel/Palestine or current events with our students. Given that our students are 13 and 14 and that they have so short a time frame for interaction, the schools agreed that forging positive relationships among students would be our top priority.
The need for such an exchange became apparent to me in one moment I will never forget. As a teacher of Jewish history, I strive to make each lesson relevant to my students and to instill in my students a sense of empathy. Despite my best effort to teach the importance of not stereotyping, when one of my students announced that “Muslims are terrorists,” I realized that nothing I could do or say in my classroom would change this teen’s mind. My student needed a catalyst to change his thinking—an opportunity to meet Muslim teens.
Before meeting face-to-face, Muslim and Jewish “buddies” exchange three moderated emails, responding to prompts such as “Share about the meaning of your name,” and “What holidays are most meaningful to you and why?” Then the 7th and 8th grade New Horizon students spend a day at Sinai Akiba Academy and a month later, students from Sinai Akiba Academy spend a day at New Horizon School. With support from Facing History and Ourselves, teachers from both schools co-create the curriculum for the two-day exchange. Students explore essential questions together: “What does it mean to pursue justice?” “What does it mean to be a Muslim/Jewish American?” Each day is filled with games, art, text study, service opportunities, prayer and reflection.
My students’ reflections suggest that the Day School Exchange does, indeed, have an impact. One of my students wrote, “When we were with the kids from New Horizon I almost forgot that they weren't Jewish. We were all so similar.” Another student shared, “This experience has affected me because now I feel like giving more and making a difference in the world. I also feel like making friends with people outside of my community.” A third student remarked, “[The exchange] made me change my views on Islam.”
The majority of our students and parent body support the Day School Exchange. One parent wrote in a Facebook comment that this exchange was the highlight of her child’s experience at Sinai Akiba. Despite strong support from our parent body overall, there are still some who are wary of this project. Though we may not reach every child in our middle school, hopefully the impact we are having will have a ripple effect. As one student wrote, “If the next generation of Jews and Muslims—my generation—can begin a dialogue, then maybe we can work to find a solution. This is a beginning.”