May 28, 2024
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RKYHS Student Reflects On Year of Diversity

I’ll be honest: diversity is not a major part of my life. How could it be? I go to a Jewish Modern Orthodox high school. I spend my summers in Jewish programs. I have stepped foot in the melting pot that is public school only once, and it was not for a long enough period of time to meet anyone. Nearly everyone I know is like me—Jewish. Different backgrounds, different levels of observance, but Jewish. I was used to a lack of diversity in my life, and being surrounded by people who have the same general beliefs as me made it easy to quickly connect over shared thoughts, even if we disagreed on the finer points.

But despite loving the comfort provided by my Jewish environment, I have always been curious about other types of people. Being surrounded by Jews all the time means that I already know a person when I meet them. I know we have a similarity in our shared faith. I know that we have something to potentially bond over. I know their basic beliefs.

With non-Jews, that guarantee is non existent. All I knew about other faiths came from watching TV shows or the news. A lot of it is not pretty, which isn’t surprising—bad news is more marketable, after all. But, I always wanted to know more. I always wanted to learn about other beliefs and faiths. That way, maybe I could understand them and draw connections from other people’s religions to my own. But how could I meet—and befriend—other kinds of people?

The answer was something that I never expected to happen at my school. One morning, one of the rabbis announced to the junior class that there were plans to begin an exchange program with a local Muslim school. We would spend a day at their school, and they would spend a day at ours. We would get to talk and discuss our respective religions. He wanted to know who was interested. Immediately, I knew I was. Here, at last, was an opportunity I had always wanted—to be able to branch out and begin to know and understand people different from myself.

It took several months for the program to be established. In that time, our rabbi met with the group, the Joint Coalition, a few times. We discussed how the idea would not be supported by all of the parents, students and teachers. But the biggest problem was whether politics would invade our discussions. The program was meant to focus strictly on religion, not on any problems in the Middle East. Our rabbi told us that we were not to bring up the topic of Israel or Palestine. If it came up, we could discuss it, but why mention it unnecessarily? The program was meant to promote friendships and tolerance, and a political debate could ruin that.

When the day finally came, we went over to a Muslim school about an hour’s drive away. As we neared the school, conversation in the bus began to slow. All of us were a bit apprehensive. What if the whole idea was a mistake? What if we would have nothing in common, or not be able to have meaningful discussions?

As it turns out, we worried for nothing. When we arrived, the Muslim students were eating lunch, and they invited us to join in. Even though we had already eaten, we sat down and took a look around. Everything felt different. The boys and girls ate separately, all of the girls were wearing head coverings, and posters with Arabic writing covered the walls. I had wanted to get to know a different culture, and this was definitely a change from what I was used to seeing.

We began to get to know each other. The girls at our table repeated their names about five times, and we did the same. Our Hebrew names and their Arabic ones were pretty foreign to each other, and it was tough to remember things we had never heard before. We asked about the head coverings, and learned that they were actually hijabs. They asked why we weren’t eating lunch with them, and we explained that we keep kosher. It was a bit awkward, but we had plenty to talk about—both about religion and about typical teenage things. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but in a way it was, to find out that they bought their clothes from H&M and watched the same TV shows we did.

After lunch, we were invited to observe the school’s prayer service. Then, all the members of our Joint Coalition and the Muslim juniors and seniors went into a room and had a discussion. We were allowed to ask anything we wanted about Islam, and the students answered our questions. They were allowed to ask anything about Judaism, and we answered their questions. I never expected us to have so many similarities, but we did. Our reasons behind our respective traditions were the same, even if the practices were different. Both of us discovered we have dietary restrictions, wardrobe restrictions and marriage restrictions. Both of us discovered that we have a strong, unbreakable connection to a piece of land an ocean away. Both of us discovered that we are not as different as it may seem.

The topic of Israel and Palestine did come up, and it was an awkward conversation. We had different beliefs than they did about who should be living where and why. But we were able to come up with a possible compromise to the problem, and one of the Muslim teachers remarked, “Hopefully you guys all become the next world leaders—you do a better job of finding a solution than the current ones do.”

By the time their school day ended, we were all sad to go. We exchanged Snapchat and Instagram accounts with the Muslim students, hugged them goodbye, and hoped that they would visit our school soon. In just a few hours, the program had gone from one simply about tolerance to one that had created friendships as well.

The program met one more time, when the Muslim students visited our school. We had another group discussion and let the students observe one of our prayers. Because we had had such an intense conversation about religious difference only a month before, this one wasn’t quite as long. But we found we still had a lot of questions and wanted to know the reasons behind laws. When the day ended, it was pretty upsetting to say goodbye, because some of the Muslim students were graduating, and next year it would be the current sophomores’ turn for the program.

About a week after school ended, our rabbi invited the members of the Coalition to attend a Ramadan celebration. Some of us went, and it was a very interesting experience. The celebration was open to people of all faiths. An imam spoke, a reverend spoke, and our rabbi spoke, as well. They all talked about how we should be promoting tolerance and acceptance and create connections from one religion to another. Only then would we be able to make peace in the world.

The entire program was extremely eye opening to me. I had expected to learn about Islam and meet some people. I hadn’t expected to be able to sympathize with Muslim struggles and understand the reasons behind their traditions. I had certainly not expected to discover that our religions, though so different in practice, are very alike in emotion.

By far the best moment was on that first day, when we were visiting the Muslim school. At the lunch table, once we had started discussing our respective religions, we swapped holy books. As one of the Muslim girls looked at our Hebrew prayers, she accidentally turned the text upside down. When we corrected her, she remarked, “It’s funny—it looks like Arabic when it’s upside down.” We then turned the Koran we had borrowed upside down, too. It was true—suddenly the Arabic seemed to resemble Hebrew letters instead. Our religions and lifestyles may look different from a first glance, just like our languages. But once you take a good, hard look, there are so many similarities that you wonder why you haven’t spotted them before. If a bunch of high school kids could create a bond of friendship and understanding between two different faiths, surely leaders around the world can do the same.

By Ariella Shua, RKYHS rising senior

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