This week featured a series of blog posts from the students and teachers involved in an exchange between two Los Angeles middle schools: Sinai Akiba Academy, a Jewish day school, and New Horizon School, a Muslim day school. Today we conclude with final reflections from the teachers, Rebecca Berger and Aysha Mehdi.Rebecca Berger: I mentioned a student in the first blog post who said to me after the first exchange day, "Mrs. Berger, I wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed today but…” I braced myself for what would come next, but when she continued she said,
"I didn’t get to spend enough time with my buddy, so can they come to our school again?”
Aysha Mehdi: Rebecca and I came across many hurdles and challenges as we planned our days. However, that was our bonding that had to be done before we asked our students to bond. We realized that if we, a Muslim teacher and a Jewish teacher, can be good friends for life then so can our students. Their friendships and understanding would be a natural extension of ours.
Not only do students build relationships through the exchange, but so do our teachers, principals, parents, and communities. Students love the exchange days, it’s one of their first questions when the year begins, "Ms. Mehdi when are we going to do the exchange with the Jewish school?" This tells me that the word is going around and it’s having a ripple effect. Students share their experiences with their parents and the parents have always generously supported the program. I hope that in the future, we have activities for our parents as well. I feel blessed to be a part of a community that not only appreciates diversity and peace, but practices it by supporting bold activities like our exchange.
Rebecca: My hope is that by impacting the students, we will be able to impact students’ families, school communities, and ultimately the larger Los Angeles community.
One of my seventh-grade students reflected on her learning in her Jewish History class this year:
“I learned that it is important to gain the ability to look past appearances and realize that, despite our differences, we have many similarities. This year we learned about ‘us‘ and ‘them,‘ and how many people were treated differently based on how they were stereotyped. When we were with the kids from New Horizon I almost forgot that they weren't Jewish. We were all so similar.”
Aysha: When we planned the exchange days, our main goal was first to create a secure, productive/nurturing environment for our students, to give them an opportunity, to help them realize the stereotypes and break down the barriers. We wanted them to develop friendships that they would probably not initiate on their own.
We planned the exchange in such a way that one day New Horizon would visit Sinai Akiba and on another day Sinia Akiba would visit New Horizon, so that the students can see and experience each other's "world." We also planned to focus on the similarities between the religions on one day and to focus on the similarities as Americans on another day. In this way we would include religious and national identities, both of which are components of our schools, our students, and we ourselves. This year we focused on Moses as a figure that is an excellent example of someone who stood up against injustices. We also witnessed each other’s prayer ceremonies. One student came up to me and said, “I love the part of the day when I got to pray with my Jewish buddy.” It’s these reflections and realizations that we wish to reap from the exchange.
Rebecca: While this type of student reflection makes me realize just how important our exchange program is for students, it is more difficult for me to gauge the impact on parents. I had a parent come and tell me that the exchange with New Horizon was the “best experience her child has had in all of her years at Sinai Akiba.” At the same time, each year we have at least one family who chooses not to let their child participate in the program. Every year when I see a Muslim student playing basketball with a Jewish student or a Jewish student with her arm around her Muslim buddy, I wonder how I can transmit this image to the parents and students who opt out.
I want my students to talk about their experience with their parents, especially the parents who might have had initial hesitations about the exchange program. My guess is that garnering 100% support from all families will continue to be a challenge, but I am proud to be part of a school that believes -- in mission and in practice -- in educating the next generation of leaders that can interact and collaborate with people of all backgrounds and religions. One kid at a time, one family at a time, I’m confident my school is working to create a more tolerant world.
As one student said,
We may not use the same prayer book, but 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.”
Aysha: As I was reading all the reflections from different students, I came across the reflection of the student who is now in 8th grade. Her initial comment about Jews came to my mind, but soon my fear turned into hope as I read,
This student had very differe nt feelings about a year ago, and now I could not even recognize her from her writing. She had changed for the better. This just proves that given the right environment and opportunities, we can all look beyond our difference and find strength in our similarities.
2015 is our fourth year of the so called "exchange," but in reality, it really is our fourth year of friendship, bond, and love. It is the fourth year of our promise to make Los Angeles a better community as partners in peace and faith.