Interview: Debbie Danon
'Aren't all Jewish women bald?'
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In a comprehensive in East London, where only the ornate white tower of the local Hindu temple rises above the low terraced housing, a group of 35 14-year olds are having a lesson in interfaith understanding. There is not a single white face.
For an hour and a quarter, they sit attentively, asking questions to a visiting panel of three speakers in their 20s, one Muslim, one Christian and one Jewish. According to the teacher, many of the students have never have met anyone Jewish. Their Jewish visitor is Debbie Danon, 26, who is education manager of the Three Faiths Forum. Founded in 1997, the forum has evolved from simply being a meeting ground for leaders of the three Abrahamic faiths to a grassroots organisation active among youth and schoolchildren. In the past academic year, its programmes reached an estimated 5,000 students in 70 schools. More than 40 schools take part in its Shared Futures scheme, which encourages multi-faith links between schools.
Ms Danon, who joined the forum in 1997, is not your typical North-West Londoner: she is from a Turkish Sephardi background, grew up in South London and studied theology at Cambridge, adding biblical Hebrew to the Ivrit after a gap year in Israel. She had been thinking of going into advertising or public relations before a coffee with the Board of Deputies' interfaith officer just before a trip to India helped her change course.
Originally, the forum's school programme involved comparative scriptural study of a topic. "Our most popular one is Bling – beauty, modesty and clothing. But some Jewish schools were not comfortable teaching other people's texts. So we said how about if people came in and talked a bit about their lives and the kids could ask them questions. They loved the idea."
Hence was born the Encountering Other Faiths programme, a "first step" towards interfaith empathy, she says. "One of the questions on our feedback form is 'Did you recognise ways in which the speaker's experiences were like your own?' Often, they would say, yes, they could really relate to these people."
Around the school circuit, she will face all sorts of inquiries like "Is that your own hair because I have heard Jewish women are bald" to "Why do Jewish men wear curly-wurlies". Meanwhile, she recalls pupils at a Jewish school being fascinated by their Muslim speaker's hijab. "They asked do you have to wear it when you go swimming – or if you go a party.
"But we want to visit the students several times - we've seen that's what gets results. And also to give platforms for those young people to share what they have learned with the rest of the school, so it's more of a school culture, rather something just a few experience."