Breaking down barriers between cultures – The Australian Jewish News OCN News

I guess I got lucky. Between four and eight years at Connaught House School in London, my classmates included Ziyad Aladdin, Khalid Ishmail and Yasser Al-Sayid. You’re right, none of them fit what you consider to be traditional Jewish names. But we played together and went to each other’s birthday parties.

And when I came home from school, who greeted me at the door of the building where we lived with a beaming smile? That’s right, Mohammed the doorman. His wife Aysha was our housekeeper. And whenever we had people over for dinners, yom tovs or simchas, Aysha would help in the kitchen, and Mohammed – who also worked at a posh casino and traveled to Mecca for the Haj – would put on his tuxedo and assume the role of bartender. and server.

Mohammed and Aysha were part of the family, Ziyad, Khalid and Yasser were my friends.

That’s how I saw them. Yes, they were Arabs and Muslims, but our relationship was not tainted by any geopolitical or religious considerations.

So I got lucky. There were members of the community I grew up in who didn’t have the social exposure that I had, and who automatically excluded anyone Arab or Muslim as an enemy.

You’d like to think that over 40 years later and thousands of miles away in a state that prides itself on multiculturalism, that kind of attitude might have been confined to the history books, but unfortunately not. It persists in some neighborhoods.

But it’s not just about how we perceive them. It’s also about how they perceive us.

What would people think of us who have never met a Jew or, for that matter, who know nothing about Israel?

Well, if last year’s media coverage of Jews and Israel was the only exposure they got, it’s unlikely.

Jews are the ones who, not once but twice, have been splashed across the front pages of newspapers and TV screens blatantly breaking lockdown rules. And Israel was the country described as reducing the homes of poor Palestinians to rubble. Hardly the best first impression.

And that’s where the Jakob Frenkiel Connecting Cultures service run by Zionism Victoria comes in.

In a nutshell, it is a free service supplementing the Victorian curriculum that brings students from non-Jewish schools across the state into the heart of the Jewish community. The experience is tailored to the age of the participants and what they are studying. They can visit a Jewish school, a shule, the Melbourne Holocaust Museum and the Jewish Museum of Australia. They can hear from rabbis, Holocaust survivors, communal leaders and volunteers. Throw in a falafel lunch and a short film about Israel, and the impact can’t be overstated.

Students from Wonthaggi Primary School and Leibler Yavneh College planting a tree.

For young students whose only impression of the Jewish state is likely to come from highly damaging reporting, this is an opportunity to see a vibrant multicultural modern democracy, respectful of all faiths and a world leader in many areas, from science to start-ups and from high technology to haute cuisine.

And given what we’ve read recently about anti-Semitic bullying in public schools and swastikas, the importance of reaching out to younger members of the wider Victorian community and educating them about who we are and our history is essential.

Earlier this month, at Beth Weizmann, we had the pleasure of welcoming 50 students from Melton Christian College. It was as much an education for me as it was for them. As they sat in one of the rooms in the Lamm Library between their visits to the Holocaust Museum and St Kilda Shule, they nodded and said graces before sinking into their falafel and their pita. Frum Christian children. Who knew?

One of them approached very politely and, after saying what an eye-opening experience it was, asked if he could walk around the library and look at the books and Judaica on display. Shortly after, Ruth from the library called me into my office to tell me what a pleasure it was to see the 50 students now browsing the shelves.

From Melton to Mildura and from Wallan to Wonthaggi, every year hundreds of students converge on Caulfield for Connecting Cultures. And their schools in Country Victoria are more than happy to reciprocate. Primary pupils from Leibler Yavneh, for example, became pen pals with children from schools in southern Gippsland and went to experience a bit of their way of life, learning about topics such as dairy farming and coal mining .

Cultural educator Rob Robertson, who hailed Connecting Cultures as “one of the most rewarding and educational programs Wonthaggi North Elementary School has attended”, enthused that it “promotes the culture of peace and acceptance of others”, adding that lasting friendships are forged not only between students from different schools but also between teachers.

Fundamentally, he added, it “plays an important role in sowing seeds of tolerance, compassion and understanding that will help create a more harmonious society for the future to come.”

Surely no one can question whether it is an end worth pursuing.

As for Ziyad, Khalid and Yasser, I’ll be honest, it’s been many years since I’ve seen my Muslim playmates. But I can only hope that they remember their Jewish friends from Connaught House school with the same warm feeling I remember them with. And most importantly, our shared childhood meant they grew up without the damaging blinders to those of a different religion or ethnicity that plague so many in our society.

Ultimately, when cultures connect, barriers are broken down. And in today’s world, we all need to do our part to make that happen.

Zeddy Lawrence is the Executive Director of Zionism Victoria.

For more information on the Jakob Frenkiel Connecting Cultures service, visit zionismvictoria.org.au/connecting-cultures or email [email protected]

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