On the "cover" June 20 ...
June 20, 2014
School outside a classroom
School curriculum can seem abstract, separate from the “real” world for which it is intended to prepare our children. What can a teacher do to bring the world into her classroom? She can take the classroom into the world.
This is what teacher Shoshana Burton, now of Richmond Jewish Day School, has been doing for many years. Random Acts of Kindness, or RAC (Random Acts of Chesed), week began at King David High School after the sudden death in 2010 of alumna Gabrielle Isserow z’l. Known for her tremendous kindness, it was an apt way to ease the students’ grief. Explained Burton, “RAC week transformed the students’ overwhelming sense of loss into a creative expression of chesed. It revealed a yearning for a network of support and action.”
The project gained momentum and the weeklong celebration of kindness has become “a yearlong process that grows every year, involving students, families and the wider Jewish community.”
Working at RJDS for the 2013-14 academic year, Burton wanted to add a new dimension to the project. She approached Richmond’s nearby Az-Zahraa Islamic Academy. It was a perfect match, as their principal explains on the school’s website, “Education goes well beyond the classroom door.”
Az-Zahraa teacher Jessie Claudio came on board with no hesitation and, over the last few months, the students have formed some powerful new connections. According to Burton, “We had to pull RJDS and AZIA students away from each other when it was time to go back to school!”
The new program was named Abraham’s Tent because the prophet Abraham – revered in both Islam and Judaism – was known for his generous hospitality.
In February of this year, Burton and Claudio took their students on an unusual field trip: to the centre of the Downtown Eastside, to Main and Hastings. There, they spent five days delivering sandwiches they had made, with food donated by Save-On-Foods at Ironwood, Richmond. They also handed out warm clothes.
According to RJDS parent Kathy Rabinovitch-Marliss, this trip challenged the students to leave their comfort zone and set aside any apprehensions or thoughts of judgment. She counseled her daughter, Hannah, to remember that every homeless man is “someone’s father, or someone’s son.”
Among the recipients of the group’s kindness was Fred Miller, 58, caught by a CBC camera as he observed, “If Muslim and Jewish kids can live together, why can’t the rest of the world live together?”
These words inspired the RAC students to find out more. With the help of CBC, they managed to find Miller downtown. They invited him to speak at RJDS, which ended with a massive group hug. On the RJDS blog, principal Abba Brodt describes Miller’s “unflinching” honesty as he answered the students’ questions with stories from his life. Having struggled with addiction for many years, Miller’s experiences made a change from the usual Grade 7 fare, such as The Outsiders. Brodt said the discussion covered, “spiritual strength, faith, addiction, poverty, broken family bonds and deep loneliness.” The students were “spellbound,” he added.
Abraham’s Tent gained recognition with a $3,000 award in a worldwide competition hosted by Random Acts, a nonprofit whose goal is to inspire acts of kindness. But it’s not just about the prize, of course. Claudio and Burton agree that the learning outcomes here go far beyond the regular curriculum. Said Claudio, it has been an excellent opportunity to “bring the textbook to life.” The best way to learn something, she said, is through the emotions.
And, when the students start to form their own opinions about the Jewish-Muslim conflict, Burton hopes that these friendships will remind them to be “tolerant and open-minded.”
Rather than keeping the $3,000 award for their own schools, the RJDS and Az-Zahraa students chose to give the money to Covenant House in Vancouver, a shelter for at-risk youth.
Mohamed A. Dewji, vice-president of the Az-Zahraa Islamic Centre, challenged British Columbia’s Shia Muslim community to match the $3,000 award – and they came through. Dewji hopes to spur other communities into action. “We’re challenging every church, every mosque, every temple to join us,” he said.
On Friday, June 7, the student group delivered both $3,000 cheques to Covenant House. They also brought boxes of shoes for the residents. George Clarke, manager of Save-On-Foods at Ironwood, Richmond, brought a gift basket packed with necessities for Miller. The atmosphere was jubilant. Jessica Harman, development officer at Covenant House, described her contact with the RAC students as “marvelous.” She added that their donations “are providing love and support to one youth in the crisis shelter for the entire month of June.”
A soft-spoken and articulate man, Miller told the Independent, “It doesn’t end here. I want to work with youth now.” Having already published a set of his stories, he is honing his craft in a journalism class.
Ruby Ravvin, a Grade 7 RJDS student, described Miller as “awesome!” He then ruffled her hair.
The students have created a binder full of cards to help brighten Miller’s day when he feels lonely. In a letter, Breanne Miller (RJDS, Grade 7, no relation to Fred Miller) speaks of inspiration, wisdom and not taking the good things in life for granted. “You have opened my eyes,” she wrote. “You inspired all of us.”
Prior to her involvement in RAC, student Hannah Marliss had never had a conversation with a homeless person, nor did she have any close Muslim friends. Now, she said, “We’re hoping to invite the Az-Zahraa students to our grad. We’ve started something together!”
She described the change she has experienced in her own life. “Life’s not about technology, iPads and iPhones. They’re just things,” she said. “It’s about family, people you have connections with.”
On a scale of one to 10, the RAC experience was “definitely a 10,” said Hannah. Her mother agreed: “This was the highlight of Hannah’s elementary school life. It has changed all of our lives,” said Rabinovitch-Marliss.
Omid Gha, a counselor at Az-Zahraa, summed up the experience with a quote from Aristotle: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
Shula Klinger is a freelance writer living in North Vancouver.
Much new at Hillel BC
Rabbi Philip Bregman is a longstanding leader in the Jewish community. He served as senior rabbi at Temple Sholom for 33 years and is still connected with the congregation as rabbi emeritus. He is co-founder of the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver, maintains an active role on the University of British Columbia chaplaincy and serves as co-chair for Vancouver’s Jewish-Christian Dialogue group. He joined Vancouver Hillel Foundation during its transition period and is now the executive director of the organization, which officially became Hillel BC Society last month.
Hillel has been a centre for Jewish life on campus at UBC since 1947. Bregman would like to expand on its foundation, diversifying the programming and making it more available to young Jewish adults throughout the Lower Mainland.
The purpose of Hillel BC Society, explained Bregman, “is to help facilitate the growth of young Jewish souls and minds, socially, mentally, gastronomically, intellectually, politically. To understand what does it mean for you to be a Jew in the world today.... We are trying to grow young Jewish adults and start from wherever they are starting and give them a sense that this is a home, this is a safe space and, for some, a continuation of their Jewish journey and, for others, a beginning of their Jewish journey.”
As in most Jewish homes, food plays an integral role at Hillel BC. Noting that Hillel provides “some of the best food in the city in terms of good, nutritional, tasty, delicious food, kosher food,” Bregman said, “A lot of our programs operate around food as a way of getting individuals into the building. Then, once we have them in the building, we have other programs to offer them as well. For example, a barbeque may very well be the thing that brings the individual into the building, but we also may happen to have a faculty member here from Jewish studies who will be teaching Talmud” or, “on Friday mornings, come for the most phenomenal shakshuka, but what comes with the shakshuka is also a discussion about Israel, social, political, religious discussions.”
Hillel BC’s reach extends beyond the Jewish community of UBC. “We do a lot of collaboration,” said Bregman. “We have done collaboration with the synagogues, we have done collaboration with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, we do collaborations with CIJA, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and so we are giving educational opportunities.... We teach Hebrew, we have Judaism 101 courses, and we have the opportunity to engage in dialogue programs with different Muslim student associations, with the Pakistani student association ... aboriginal student organizations on campus and various Christian groups, as well.”
Young Jewish adults at Hillel BC have the opportunity to get “involved in tikkun olam, in helping to repair the world.... We make peanut butter and jam [sandwiches] with the Ismaili Students’ Association. The sandwiches get taken down to the Downtown Eastside.” There are also various clothing drives or food bank drives, he said. Additionally, Hillel offers many students leadership opportunities because a lot of programming comes “from a collaboration between the programs’ staff and the Hillelniks, so some things are initiated by us and some things are initiated by the students themselves.”
Bregman is moving Hillel towards more diverse programming and events, “so a person can come into this building and see we are involved with a multiplicity of ideas.” This approach is reflected in the organization’s recent rebranding. “We are no longer Vancouver Hillel Foundation, we are Hillel BC Society and this came from the staff,” Bregman explained. “The idea of being Vancouver Hillel was too centrist and too isolating.... [It] makes no sense when one of our places we are dealing with is Burnaby or one of the places we are dealing with is Victoria and wherever else that I hope to open up in the next little while.”
Hillel BC is working to engage young Jewish adults in new ways because “the old paradigm of how to deal with things doesn’t hold anymore ... you cannot depend on Jewish identity if you are only planting two trees, [focusing only on] Israel and [the] Holocaust. Are they important? Of course, they are. But so is social integration and Jewish identity in terms of what it means today, and so is asking, ‘How do I live in this world?’... So, the challenges are to provide the opportunities to individuals to see Hillel as a springboard for many other things.”
Bregman said, “Our challenges are not in the areas of programming, and I’m pleased to say not in the areas of staffing. I have an absolutely magnificent staff.” He said, “Our major issue is around funding, it is around finance. There is a statement in the Talmud, ‘Ein kemach, ein Torah.’ Without wheat, referring to the substance, the money, if there is no money, there is no Torah and, if there is no Torah, there is no money.... We are providing the Torah, the programming,” but “what we need, of course, is the financial means to continue this and that’s the greatest challenge.”
Bregman is positive about the future of Hillel BC Society. “This year, my first year, I came in and we were serving three campuses. We now serve five because I opened up Langara and I opened up Emily Carr,” he said. “Now, I’m looking to see what else needs to be opened up in the Lower Mainland, where we think there is some type of Jewish presence, because what has happened at Langara and Emily Carr has been tremendously successful.”
He emphasized, “I want Hillel there as a torchbearer and as an or l’goyim, a light unto the nations, to let people know that when you come into Hillel, you have a multiplicity of opportunities to meet all sorts of individuals, politicians, social activists, philosophers, individuals with unbelievably great hearts and souls.”
Zach Sagorin is a Vancouver freelance writer. He is on the board of the Jewish Students’ Association.
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