Emma Shevah

That interfaith group? One day

Teacher Emma Shevah wanted to set up a J-soc at her school. But it wasn't simple...


A group of schoolgirls sit talking at a table outside of school

June 02, 2021 20:36

In February, when schooling was online, a colleague emailed. A Year 11 student (let’s call her Ariella) was thinking of serving in the IDF. Would I talk to her?

“Course,” I replied, aware my knowledge is minimal but assuming it must be less minimal than hers. I video call her, and it turns out Ariella and her mother, also present, know significantly more about the IDF than I do, her mother naming units I’ve never heard of and know precisely zero about, so I fail spectacularly in my role of army advisor.

But I’m happy to meet Ariella and she’s delighted to discover there’s a new Jewish teacher in school. I suggest setting up a J-Soc type thing for Jewish staff and students to chat, share honey cake, host Chanukah parties, and let them feel seen, for once.

Ariella’s keen, so I run it by the Head. She suggests, in the spirit of inclusivity, setting up faith groups for all the school’s faiths, which is a sterling idea but involves quite a lot more time and effort than I’d hoped to add to my workload.

Still. Interfaith. Yes. Important. The communities could then meet and share values, have interesting discussions and build empathy and understanding.

On the case, I ask my Year 13 Muslim students to set up a Muslim faith group by initiating an online meeting (different year groups can’t yet gather physically) to talk about Ramadan, whether they fasted, how it went, and to celebrate Eid. They’re enthused so I send the other year heads an email.

I send further emails to students and teachers asking those of any faith — and, in the spirit of inclusivity, atheists — if they’d like to facilitate a student-led community. Three Christian teachers reply and two Year 12 Christian students set up a team on Teams. I email the year heads again. Balls are rolling.

Ramadan comes and goes. No students email to join the Muslim faith community. Not one email to join the Christian faith community. No Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs or atheists contact me, either.

Uncountable email volleys and meetings later, I think, well, I tried. By now it’s May: tensions in Israel have escalated to war, protests are happening in British cities, and social media is flooded with anti-Israel and pro-Palestine sentiment. Colleagues repeatedly ask if my daughter’s wedding is still on (Jerusalem, August) and I shrug and say, “Think so.”

The news is suddenly pertinent to them — they now know someone with ties there, children there, planning to go there this summer for her daughter’s wedding — but this is not news to any of us. We know this situation and the media bias all too well. But this time — because of social media — it seems worse.

Raw, angry and despairing, I email the Jewish students and four reply. I set up a meeting with two of them (the other two can’t make it that day). I meet Ariella and another student, who can’t believe she has the opportunity to talk to someone about this at school. They discuss how hard it is that their friends challenge them, mechanically repost inaccurate information, don’t ask how their families are, and don’t see them, suddenly, as a friend and peer, but as a part of an oppressive system.

Ariella says we have a responsibility to put people right and she’s got a point, but sticking your head above the parapet isn’t easy. The mood is hostile and social media is toxic and dangerous.

She goes to her music lesson, so I talk to the other student for a while: she’s a boarder but is thinking of going to JFS for sixth form and staying with a host family because after all this, she wants to be in a Jewish environment.

We plan to meet again soon, and invite the other two students. I leave the room having talked to some of the school’s Jewish students three months and lots of additional work later, and that’s all I wanted to do in the first place.

It felt good. I might bring cake next time, even though there’s no chag on the horizon. A honey cheesecake doughnut, maybe, to cover a few bases.

Shame about those interfaith discussions, though. Boy, do we need those, and now more than ever. I might try again at some stage. But I might not.


Emma Shevah is an author, English teacher and head of Year 13 at a boarding and day school for girls. Her latest book is ‘How to Save the World With a Chicken and an Egg’ published by Chicken House

June 02, 2021 20:36

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