In January of this year, with a packed crowd of educators and religious leaders looking on, Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill increasing security funding for non-public school students. Ben Porat Yosef Head of School Rabbi Saul Zucker was in the audience, and as he watched the diverse group in attendance, all gathered to support this common goal, he was struck with an inspired idea.
That day Rabbi Zucker was introduced to the heads of school of a number of Islamic institutions, including Darul Arqam, an Islamic school serving South River, New Jersey from preschool through 12th grade. During that introduction, Rabbi Zucker pitched his idea: Bring the eighth grade students from both schools together to break down the barriers between the two communities.
“We share so much in common. And even though we have passionate disagreements, we can still treat each other with dignity and respect,” said Rabbi Zucker. The Darul Arqam leadership loved the idea, and a planning meeting was soon held to hash out the details.
Weeks of planning culminated in the Breaking Barriers four-part program, held last week at BPY, which incorporated fun and thoughtful components designed to chip away at stereotypes each group may have had about the other and focus on their shared interests.
The first part of the program was a “Getting to Know You” speed session at which eighth graders from BPY and Darul Arqam sat across from each other in two rows with a faculty member posing questions out loud, for example, “What kind of music do you like to listen to?” or “What kind of books do you like to read?” The kids then had a minute to discuss their answers with each other. Afterward, the kids shared out loud what they had learned about their counterparts that surprised them.
The next part of the program was something all kids can relate to—a little friendly competition in the form of relay races. The kids divided into teams, made up of students from both schools, and participated in numerous races and activities while faculty and parents cheered them on.
A reflective session followed, with the head of school of Darul Arqam, Sahar El Wazzan, addressing the students. “The main objective [of this program is] for the students to build bridges by socializing and gaining educational perspectives on global, religious and social communities to generate empathy, compassion and understanding,” El Wazzan shared.
The students were then charged with voicing their impressions of the day, and there was no small amount of pride in the room at hearing the amazing thoughts the eighth graders shared. Students from both schools agreed: “I learned about a whole new culture I knew nothing about before, and I could see that they’re really ‘normal.’” A student from Darul Arqam shared, “It’s amazing to see what people from the two Abrahamic legacies have in common.” Another commented, “We listen to the same music, read the same books, have the same heroes.”
After working hard sharing their feelings, the students enjoyed a delicious lunch, and as they sat together, talking and relaxing, you could hear emails and phone numbers being exchanged and the beginnings of friendships being formed.
Both schools received positive feedback from the students post-program and are committed to continuing this special relationship, already planning another program for April, this time hosted by Darul Arqam. El Wazzan shared, “We feel we have come closer to accomplishing our objective. Our students enjoyed the welcoming and friendly environment and were pleasantly surprised of commonalities that they share.”
Reflecting on the success of the day, Rabbi Zucker said, “[We tried] to get right what adults sometimes don’t get right...We can have fundamental and passionate disagreement about things and that’s OK. It’s not disrespectful. It’s OK to think the other person is wrong, but it’s not OK to treat them with any less dignity and respect because of that.”
He gushed that the day “was one of the highlights of my entire 37-year career in education.” Everyone involved in this program truly felt the magic in the halls of BPY—the magic of friendship, tolerance and respect.
By Michal Rosenberg