7th-grade Muslims and Jews share cultures, sacred objects

Students at a Sunnyvale Muslim school and a Palo Alto Jewish school are discovering that familiarity breeds respect.

For the second time, seventh-graders at the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School invited their counterparts from Silicon Valley Academy to hold a joint classroom, as part of their studies on Islamic culture and the Muslim world.

During the joint class, the youngsters, mostly 12 and 13, shared ideas and learned about each others' faiths and traditions.

Silicon Valley Academy student Fatima Jamiel thought the experience was insightful and had ongoing value.

"It's good to interact with other cultures when you're young. Then we can understand and respect each other as we grow older. This is how you achieve peace in the world."

Student Sheranne Redzinski added, "I used to live in Israel and never met Muslims before. It is terrific that we have this opportunity now."

Alisa Brown blew her shofar and explained what it symbolized on Rosh Hashanah. And the Muslim students explained the meaning behind their loud call to prayer.

The Jewish students had recently heard this call when they'd visited the Muslim school.

Referring to their first meeting, Silicon Valley Academy teacher Sonia Lejoni explained that the session wasn't as successful.

"Last time we overcame a lot of hesitation. Now the students are more relaxed and interacting as friends. A lot of barriers have come down."

The class formed two circles to share and explore religious objects they had brought from home. Each student explained the significance of his or her item, and what it represented culturally.

Becky Bob-Waksburg offered a detailed explanation about her tallit. She showed the four corners and what they symbolized. Following her presentation, Mariam Tolba displayed her prayer rug, telling the group that it is used five times a day when prayers are recited facing Qiblah, where the holy house is built in Mecca.

Other objects included prayer beads and a Koran holder. Students viewed a gold prayer dish, which is used for wall decoration to remind Muslims of the important prayers from Allah (God) for protection. This dish also symbolizes that where it hangs is a Muslim house, and that there is no God but Allah.

The object reminded Jewish students of their mezuzot. Allyson Storm, who had brought one to share, said, "The mezuzah has the Sh'ma to remind us that God is everywhere."

Sitting side by side, Aviva Maine displayed the kippah she made, while Ruhi Schroeder remarked that the scarf on her head was worn as a sign of respect to cover her hair when praying.

Monub said Muslims recite prayers before slaughtering animals. Anas Tolba related that according to the rules of Islam, the consumption of alcohol or wine is forbidden. Several of the Jewish students spoke of their upcoming b'nai mitzvah ceremonies.

Following this dialogue, the groups examined the Torah. Muslim teacher Sonia Lejmi pointed out that the Koran also has a section devoted to Moses and the Red Sea.

"We believe in all the prophets," Lejmi explained.

Exchanging ideas on food, Rich Latham discovered with Monub Ihium and Anas Tolba that none of them is permitted to eat pork but that they all eat falafel.

Students also compared notes on special holiday foods, as Latham boasted to the two Muslim students about latkes and matzah brei at Chanukah and Passover. They also learned that fasting is a common ritual they observe on Yom Kippur and during the ninth month of Ramadan.

Elaborating on Ramadan, Mariam Tolba said, "In this month we read more prayers and try to make good deeds, only eating at the end of the day."

The words "good deeds" resonated deeply with the Jewish students.

Judaica teacher Riva Jakobs was pleased that the second meeting produced such positive results.

"I like exchanging beliefs in common. We are all humans. Our children are proud to share traditions," Jakobs said.

"It is wonderful to see them discovering how similar we are on their own level."