I’ll admit it. When I was first told about the school exchange between Sinai Akiba Academy middle school students and the middle school students from New Horizons, an Islamic-based school, I was dubious. I pictured a room full of children seated across each other, shifting in their seats uncomfortably as teachers dutifully explained how much the two faiths had in common. Eye rolls, brief head nods and snack time would follow, with students clustered in bunches, talking in hushed voices about the “other” kids standing a few feet away. A photo op, yes. A rich, meaningful experience that truly changed the way these children viewed each other, certainly not.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. As you’ll read in Sinai Akiba student Leila Mahboubi’s blog below, whatever nerves and inhibitions the students had quickly melted away as shared interests, gossip, jokes and snacks led these young adults to form bonds quickly and eagerly engage with each other.
During the second exchange day, we learned that the New Horizons students would be leading the afternoon call to prayer. As an educator, I was anxious about how the students would behave as they watched these young men and women pray in a way that most, if not all, of them had never seen. You could have heard a pin drop. As the New Horizon students prayed, the Sinai Akiba students stood in an almost reverent silence, respectful, interested, engaged and curious. That silence soon filled up with the surprise of learning how similarly the two faiths prayed. As the second exchange day ended, instead of the cautious looks and hesitant interactions, the students said goodbye with hugs, exchanges of phone numbers and the promise to meet again soon.
This transformation was no accident. The foundation laid by the fantastic administration and staff at both schools allowed their students to feel safe, supported, challenged and encouraged throughout. Peter Hall, a renowned British stage director once said (and I’m paraphrasing here) you “have to build up structure in order to break it.” That’s just what the teachers and administrators accomplished. Using Facing History resources and exercises, along with hours of planning and preparation, these amazing educators created an environment that felt so safe, the students were ready, willing and able to break out of their comfort zones and participate in two days that brought them new perspective, new insight and new friendships. As Leila so eloquently writes at the end of her blog, the exchange “helped me to realize that the only way we can create a society that embraces differences is by using those differences, not only to add diversity and value to our society, but to bring us closer together as individuals.” You can’t ask for anything better than that.
By Leila Mahboubi
When my teacher first told our class that we were going to be having an exchange with a Muslim school, I didn't really know how to feel. I've spent my entire life learning how to be accepting of other races and religions, but my own family history made it difficult to wrap my head around the cultural and religious differences that these students would bring. In 1978 my family was forced to leave Iran, our homeland, just because of our faith. Still, I resolved to keep an open mind. “What right do I have to close myself off from people I haven't even met just because of their religion, when I have been taught from the start how important it is not to be prejudiced or un-accepting of people who aren't like me?” I promised myself that I would enter into this exchange with a positive attitude and a smile.
On the morning of the first exchange, the students from New Horizons came to our school. My homeroom classmates and I awaited their arrival, munching on Cheez-Its and cereal bars. I tapped my leg against a chair nervously. When they walked in, one of the few girls wearing a headscarf walked toward me. "Are you Leila?" she asked, reading my name tag. I nodded. The girl introduced herself. I already knew a bit about her from the letters we had exchanged. Her name was Marah, she was in 8th grade and her family was from Syria. I smiled at her, and offered her the seat next to mine. We began to talk about things like school and family. The first 10 or 15 minutes were just casual conversation. I've never been good at breaking the ice, so we just sat there, awkwardly exchanging facts about our lives.
Eventually our Principal got up to give a welcome speech, and as we sat there, something changed. Don't ask me why or how, but all of a sudden, it wasn't awkward anymore. I felt like I had known Marah all my life. Soon we were telling jokes, sharing secrets, and laughing at the stupid guys who think that acting like idiots make them cool. Then we prayed together. During the prayers, Marah and I "shared religions." I told her about Judaism, about our customs and traditions, while Marah told me about Islam. For the first time, I realized how much Judaism and Islam have in common. We share the same core beliefs and values, just under different titles.
During snack, I introduced Marah to our school in every way that I could. Marah came to classes with me that day, and while they were fun and interesting, they weren't what made my day special. The day was memorable because of the ways I was able to bond with Marah. We shared everything from our favorite foods to our crushes, but most of all, we shared our faith. When the day was over, I began to count down the days until next Wednesday, when we would get to visit Marah's school.
When we next met, Marah and I talked, and talked, and talked. We talked about the past two weeks, clothes, Hebrew, Arabic, you name it. The rest of the day passed in a flurry of exciting activity. In a group, we learned about a man named Jesus Colon and his personal story of how discrimination affected him. He had to make some tough decisions, and Marah and I squeezed each other's hands tightly as we watched a video of him recounting his experiences. It made me realize how lucky I am to live in a country where my race is untouched by these terrible discriminations, and it made me realize that it is my responsibility to combat these stereotypes in my own world today.
In another class, we created a civility machine and watched people act out situations of discrimination while wearing funky wigs. During lunch, I sat with Marah and her friends as we passed juicy gossip about who had a crush on whom. We shared food and whispered secrets to each other. It was so much fun.
The goodbyes were terrible. We exchanged phone numbers and emails, promising that we would see each other again soon. Marah and I hugged each other tightly. I realized how much I had changed in these past two weeks. Although I hate to admit it, I had been a bit prejudiced toward Marah at first, even before we met. I saw our differences as burdens and obstacles, things keeping us apart instead of pulling us closer together. Facing History has given me the tools to experience, firsthand, how we can discriminate against people we don't even know – even if we aren’t aware we are doing it. And, over the past few weeks, it has helped me to realize that the only way we can create a society that embraces differences is by using those differences, not only to add diversity and value to our society, but to bring us closer together as individuals.