We are delighted that our partnership with the Islamic School of RI (ISRI) was featured on the Rhode Island Foundation’s blog. Funded with the support of the RI Foundation’s Bliss, Gross, Horowitz Fund, the project brought together fifth graders from both JCDSRI and ISRI for a theater collaboration at the Center for Dynamic Learning (CDL). Please click below to read more and watch a short video!
JCDSRI’s partnership with the Islamic School of RI (ISRI) resulted in a wonderful performance on April 17th put together by fifth graders from both schools. Approximately 150 people attended the event, including Congressman David Cicilline, who tweeted photos of the “inspiring performances” by the students. The Providence Journal wrote about the event in Monday’s paper, including a photo gallery, as well.
For the past several months. students from both schools met twice each week at the Center for Dynamic Learning (CDL), getting to know each other and developing their dramatic skills. Students explored issues of identity, society, and friendship through CDL’s hands-on STEAMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Manufacturing and Math) theater program.
The project was funded through a generous grant from the Bliss, Gross, Horowitz Fund at the Rhode Island Foundation. Both schools look forward to continuing the partnership in the future.
One fascinating question each Jewish day school must face is, “which Jewish values do we teach?” Certainly a Reform Jewish day school and a Satmar Yeshiva will have different takes on the definition of what are true “Jewish values.” From the meaning of mitzvot to Zionism to interacting with the broader non-Jewish society, ‘authentic’ Jewish values can run the gamut. In my Jewish community, one of the values we hold dear is anti-racism. This is important to us, not just as a pluralistic Jewish day school, but also as a school that believes deeply in the values of the United States of America as a melting pot of all people. But how does one teach anti-racism?
According to a study in Nature Neuroscience, racial bias is prevalent even in toddlers and, while better concealed and repressed in adults, it continues to affect the way we perceive one another. It seems that, according to this research, it is physiologically impossible to be ‘color-blind;’ we are all predisposed to trust those that look like us, and feel apprehension towards those that look different. And yet others read that data differently. It could be understood that children placed within very diverse peer groups have fewer physiological effects of bias when presented with different races, indicating that race may be purely a social construct. If that is the case, then, we could presume that, if our society were diverse and mixed enough, we would not feel or think racist thoughts whatsoever.
So anti-racist Jewish day schools face an interesting dilemma: How does a school that is made up predominantly of white, middle class Jews teach our children to love, not fear ‘the other?’ Within a predominantly homogenous environment, how can we teach xenophilia over xenophobia?
I believe it is critical for us to engage ‘the other.’ Our students must have real, meaningful relationships with people of color and of different religions before they have a chance to form stereotypes. While we build our students’ identities around a communal “we,” we mustn’t allow them to see any other group of people as a “they.” We have to teach our students to see others with the same subtlety and nuance as we see ourselves: as a diverse network of individuals who are complex, caring, and spirited people.
This is the ‘why’ behind our partnership with the Islamic School of Rhode Island. Originally, our plan was limited to having a day of community service together with ISRI. Then we realized that meeting once would do nothing to build the kind of relationships necessary to combat the stereotypes and prejudice we are inundated with daily by the media, our politicians and our society. We began looking for a way to develop a cohort of Jewish and Muslim children that could work together long-term. In the end, we came up with a much more ambitious plan: one that we believe will create the kinds of relationships necessary to combat prejudice, racism, and stereotyping.
For three months, our fifth graders are meeting with their Islamic school peers at the Center for Dynamic Learning, twice a week for two-hour sessions. For forty-eight total hours, our students will be working together, learning about and practicing theater, based on their own lives, cultures, and histories. This long-term project will allow students to really get to know one another, build relationships and develop the affinity and trust for one another necessary to combat prejudice.
We are already almost a month into the program. Is it working? Our students are beginning to remember one another’s names and get to know one another’s personalities. They are working on projects together and laughing together – a lot. They have come to realize that “they are just kids like us.” Our fifth graders agree that this program is one of the best parts of 5th grade. They are excited and happy to see their new friends each week.
As educators, we hold certain values to be absolute and unquestionable. These values, whatever they are, are critical to pass on to our children. At JCDSRI, seeing “Betzelem Elohim” – the holiness of all human beings – is one of those values. For this reason, we seek out ways to meaningfully and cooperatively engage our ‘Other.’
On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, students and families from JCDSRI and the Islamic School of RI (ISRI) gathered together to create a tape art mural to promote peace. In addition, the students collected puzzle and activity books for children at Hasbro Children’s Hospital. For video coverage of this wonderful event, visit ABC6 or WPRI.
In February 2015, when ISRI was vandalized with hateful, anti-Islamic messages, students from JCDSRI made cards to show solidarity and support for their Muslim peers. Head of School Adam Tilove hand delivered the messages to ISRI’s Head of School Abdelnasser Hussein, and a friendship was born.
This year, with financial support from the Rhode Island Foundation, the two schools are building a partnership in the form of a 12-week theater program for their 5th graders, facilitated by the Center for Dynamic Learning. In addition, several whole school activities are planned, including the recent community building day on Martin Luther King Day organized by the two schools’ Parent Associations.
Mr. Tilove understands that, in the wake of terrorism in Israel and Paris, many people are nervous about such a partnership. He states that, among other things, “I believe in my partner Abdelnasser Hussein and the lovely people I have met from ISRI. I believe in people’s innate goodness and kindness, and I will not let evil acts poison my faith in humanity. Further, I believe that living in peace and mutual respect with one’s neighbors is not an option, but a mandate from Heaven: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is a command from God, not a qualified suggestion.”
ISRI’s Mr. Hussein is confident that cooperation and understanding will combat misconceptions and hatred. He says, “I believe religion and freedom of speech are the preliminary common grounds which will lead us to unity as citizens of the United States. We can present ourselves as role models for tolerance.”