By Stacey Dresner
NORTHAMPTON – Jewish students at Lander-Grinspoon Academy (LGA) in Northampton and Muslim students at Iqra’ Academy in West Springfield are participating in a series of meetings in order to gain a deeper understanding of each other’s religions and customs.
The two groups of students – fourth graders from LGA and fourth and fifth graders from Iqra – met for the first time on March 19 when students from Iqra visited LGA.
“Getting to know Iqra students, who attend another small religious private school in our community – like LGA – gives our students a unique opportunity to learn firsthand about the similarities and differences in our religions and customs across cultural divides,” said LGA Principal Deborah Bromberg-Seltzer.
The mission of LGA, a K-6 school, now in the midst of its 18th anniversary, is to provide a rich, academically rigorous, and values-based education integrating general and Jewish studies.
The Iqra’ Academy is connected to the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts Mosque in West Springfield. The K-12 school was founded in 2007 by several local Muslim families. Its mission is to “provide excellent academic and Islamic education in accordance with the Qur’an and Sunnah.”
“Our mission at Iqra is to help build better communities,” said Iqra Principal Nadeem Sikandar. “We aspire to work with other faiths to educate our new generation about tolerance and reverence for those whose beliefs are different from ours.”
The idea to bring LGA and Iqra students together was the idea of Eliza Moss Horwitz, 17, a former student at LGA and a senior at Northampton High School. Last summer Horwitz participated in Seeds of Peace, the non-profit organization that brings together young people from regions of conflict – mostly Jews and Arabs from the Middle East – in an attempt to build relationships and understanding on hopes of advancing peace.
After her four weeks at the Seeds of Peace camp located in Maine, Horwitz said she was inspired to bring home to Western Mass. what she learned – how to build bridges between Jews and Muslims. Eliza found Iqra Academy, contacted them and then went to visit the school.
“I thought of how much this school reminded me of my elementary school – a very small religious school connected to a religious place next door,” Moss Horwitz explained. “I thought, what if I could connect these two schools that seem very isolated from one another because of their different religions and cultures, but in reality are pretty similar.”
She got in touch with LGA and the ball got rolling.
“It is something both schools had kind of been thinking of beforehand but Eliza was the impetus behind it to make it really happen,” said Bromberg-Seltzer. “For us, we wanted to connect with Muslim kids. And Iqra does a lot of reaching out to schools. They have a lot of public schools in particular coming in, to learn more about other groups.”
Horwitz, Bromberg-Seltzer and Sikandar met a little over a month ago.
“We said, ‘Yes, let’s go ahead and do this,’” Bromberg-Seltzer said. “We discussed which class it made more sense to do it with and contacted the teachers and they were on board with it.”
The fourth graders at LGA and the combined fourth and fifth grades at Iqra were chosen to participate in the program.
“There are a few reasons why it made sense for our fourth graders to do it,” Bromberg-Seltzer explained. “Our fourth graders learn about the middle ages. So while our first graders learn about major world religions and that is their first exposure to Islam, the fourth graders are learning about the middle ages, the rise of Islam and all of that, which ties in with their social studies perspective.”
Also the numbers worked out really well. “We have a class of seven and they have a combined 4th and 5th grade of seven,” she said.
The first meeting was held on March 19.
“It was great,” Bromberg-Seltzer said. “They came and we did some ice-breakers and get-to-know-you games. Then our students gave their students a tour of the building. There were these side conversations going on, like ‘Oh, we do that kind of thing too or that sounds just like us.’”
After meeting and trying to get to know each other, the kids headed next door to Congregation B’nai Israel.
“We went over to the synagogue so they could see a sanctuary space and they joined us for our upper school tefillot. Then we had the two classes stay behind and we talked about what a synagogue is, and we pulled out a Torah for them. We let them ask a bunch of questions about what they had witnessed during prayer.”
Each class had prepared a set of questions for the opposite class, she said. Both classes received the list beforehand so they could prep and make sure to prepare good, thoughtful answers. “They said, ‘These are things we want to know about Judaism’ and we sent a list of questions about Islam and how their school functions. There were questions about prayer and their beliefs. During the last 15 or 20 minutes we answered any questions that hadn’t already been asked. There was a whole discussion about food,” Bromberg-Seltzer said.
“We had a lot of conversations in preparing for their questions in the sort of assumptions that we make,” she added. “So there were clearly some assumptions that our kids were making in the questions they were asking them.
“One of the questions they asked our students in writing was, ‘Can you have dogs as pets?’ So we talked about it, and said, ‘Why do you think they might ask that question? Maybe that is something they are not allowed to do or they think we might not be able to do.’”
The second meeting was held at Iqra Academy on April 15. LGA students were given a tour of Iqra Academy and then the two groups had lunch together. Each Iqra student was paired with one LGA student, and they were instructed to play an interview game where they learned about each other. After lunch, each student introduced their lunch partner to the other kids.
The school’s Arabic teacher came in and gave them a short lesson on the language, teaching them how to say, “What is your name? My name is ___” in Arabic. The students all then participated in an art project, decorating small bags with their names in Hebrew, Arabic, and in some cases, both.
The group then went to the mosque and the LGA students sat in on a prayer session. The Imam of the congregation met with the students and answered questions.
“He said that we all came from Abraham. He talked about the story of of Abraham taking his son to be sacrificed on the mountain and the ram getting caught, and the LGA kids said, ‘Oh, we have that story also!’ It is a different son that is being used there, but [it was similar].
“We left a lot of space for the kids to just talk to each other. There were a lot of conversations back and forth,” Bromberg-Seltzer said.
Topics during both sessions included some on food. LGA students asked the Iqra students specifically about music and its role in their religion, about places in the world that are special to Islam, and about Muslim holidays.
The schools are planning to meet once more this year in May.
“I really do think it is so important for kids to see each other not necessarily as ‘the other,’” Bromberg-Seltzer said. “But also, they have so much to learn from each other.”