Abba Brodt, Richmond Jewish Day School head of school, with Sheikh Murtaza Bachoo, religious consultant of Az-Zahraa Islamic Centre. (photo from Abba Brodt)
Grade 6 and 7 students at RJDS and Az-Zahraa Islamic Academy distributed meals to homeless members of the Downtown Eastside community last week. Joining them was Downtown Eastside resident Fred Miller, with whom the students have fostered an enduring relationship.
Left to right are Shoshana Burton, Fred Miller and Jessie Claudio. (photo by Shula Klinger)
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.