How Jewish and Muslim kids can get together

Interfaith encounters are still happening despite the growth of faith-schools

By Simon Rocker, April 30, 2009

For all the passions aroused by Israel’s incursion into Gaza at the beginning of the year, joint Muslim-Jewish initiatives have been progressing.

In February, the Spiro Ark co-hosted a concert on London’s South Bank by Berakah, an interfaith band of Muslim, Jewish and Christian musicians. Its partner was the Vigo Group, a company owned by the Muslim Shah family, who came on board when they happened to buy the building next door to the Spiro’s headquarters and got chatting.

Last month, the Muju Crew — young Jews and Muslims who work on drama projects — staged a play at London’s Tricycle Theatre exploring some of the issues prompted by the Gaza conflict. Previously, the group had stuck to safer domestic subjects. Meanwhile, in Bristol, the website radio station Salaam Shalom is broadcasting into a third year, reaching listeners as far away as Indonesia and South Africa.

Last month also saw the birth of United London Stands (ULS), whose aim is to prevent conflicts abroad from rupturing relations between religious and ethnic communities in the capital. The driving forces behind it are the London Jewish Forum and the City Circle, a group of young professional Muslims.

At the launch of ULS, the City Circle’s former chief executive, Usama Hassan, recalled that he had first got to know Jews through school (he attended City of London). Until then, he had heard Jews discussed only through the prism of events in the Middle East and his perceptions had not been “exactly positive”. Sheikh Muhammad Al-Husseini, an imam from Hertfordshire who teaches on the interfaith programme at Leo Baeck College, the Progressive movement’s rabbinic academy, has also noted that he made Jewish friends at school.

But now, the prospects of young Muslims and Jews encountering each other at school are diminishing. The growing popularity of Jewish schools is taking more and more Jewish children out of general schooling. In fact, the possibility of Jews and Muslims meeting in any significant numbers is increasingly likely to be restricted to a handful of elite independent schools.

Since most non-Charedi Jewish schoolchildren go on to university, you could argue that there is plenty of opportunity to expand their social horizons there. But if you want to give younger Jewish teenagers the chance to meet Muslims, and members of other faiths, you are going to have to plan it rather than leave it to the kind of natural mixing that once might have gone on at school.

One way is to link Jewish schools with those of other faiths, as now encouraged by the Board of Deputies under the government’s Shared Futures scheme. But another door might soon be opened. With the arrival of the Jewish Community Secondary School next year, it is predicted that eventually there will be more Jewish secondary-school places than Jewish children to fill them and that some will have to accept non-Jewish pupils.

While this is commonly seen in an adverse light, it has a very positive spin-off. In his BBC Rosh Hashanah broadcast of two years ago, Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks spoke approvingly of a Jewish school with interfaith pupils — King David Primary in Birmingham. “If,” he remarked smilingly, “someone told you about a place where Muslim families have moved home to get their children into a Jewish school, you might not believe it.”

It could now become increasingly credible.

Simon Rocker is the JC’s Judaism editor

Last updated: 10:08am, April 30 2009