Does every Jew need to learn Hebrew?
Why do you not mix meat and dairy?
What is Chanukah?
These were some of the questions Muslim and Catholic middle school students at Al-Aqsa Islamic Academy and St. Christopher Catholic School had for middle schoolers at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
Meanwhile, Barrack students had questions of their own for these other students, such as: Why is the cross the symbol of your religion? Why do women wear burqas and hijabs? How do Muslims perceive Jews?
In the fall, Writers Matter, a writing program directed by La Salle University Professor Emeritus Robert Vogel expanded to include an interfaith program for middle school students in Philadelphia.
This specific Writers Matter Interfaith pilot program grew out of the original Writers Matter program, based at La Salle. It empowers students from disadvantaged backgrounds by encouraging them to write. After taking the program abroad — first to Israel and Palestinian communities in 2010, and then to India in 2016 and to refugee children in Sweden the same year — Vogel decided he wanted to bring the program to local religious schools.
In this program, students discuss and write about identity, diversity and community while learning about and meeting students from other religions.
“When we started to get the kids together, we realized that they all lived in their own little bubble,” Vogel said. “They really had no idea about each other, not because they didn’t want to, they had just never had the opportunity.”
Originally, the goal of the program was to bring students from different religious schools together to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, it quickly became apparent that the students’ unfamiliarity with other religions needed to be addressed first.
On Nov. 29, the students from the different schools came together for the first time at Barrack, where they learned about each other, particularly about each other’s religions. The Barrack students explained some of their religious objects, the Al-Aqsa students did a prayer, and students from each school led grace before lunch.
“[The students are] getting so so many things [from the program] — a perspective on people from other religions and their world view, and understanding that the world is not this small, little microcosm but so much bigger than that,” said Diane Peters, English language arts and religion teacher at St. Christopher Catholic School.
Stephanie Raphel, a teacher at Barrack, said that, in addition to learning about other religions while simultaneously being exposed to people from those religions, answering questions from other students about Judaism has prompted Barrack students to explore their own religious identities.
Raphel noted that it wasn’t only religious differences that stood out. Students from the other schools made comments about socioeconomic differences, such as about how nice the Barrack school is.
After lunch, the students had free time, and some of the boys from the three schools went to play basketball.
“You can recognize the fact that there are differences but still build bridges over the differences,” Raphel said. “You’ve got some commonalities, even if it’s just playing basketball together in the gym.”
In addition to the November meeting, the students meet regularly with teachers in their own schools to address the assignments from Writers Matter, such as creating videos about their hobbies or upbringings, or writing “I Am From” poems, as well as discussing topics such as tolerance.
On Feb. 21, the students will come together again, this time at Al-Aqsa.
Raphel said that, now that the students are more familiar and less nervous with each other, she expects more in-depth discussion. The students will have the opportunity to share their writing with each other this time, and she is interested to see how the different location impacts the meeting.
“The main purpose of the program is for students to open up to other groups of students, to diversity, and to realize that the things that unite us, the things that are alike, are greater than the things that divide us,” said Jose Santiago, social studies teacher at Al-Aqsa. “That’s the main purpose of the program, and my students are finding exactly that.”
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