A Muslim who teaches at a south London cheder is further “bridging a cultural gap” by introducing Jewish and Muslim children to each other’s faith.
Since September, east Londoner Zain Hussain, 22, has taught at the religion school of Wimbledon (Reform) Synagogue, having learnt Ivrit for his Arabic and Hebrew degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He spent six months at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University as part of his studies.
Through his involvement, children from the shul and their parents the visited Mr Hussain’s own mosque, Minhaj-ul-Quran in Forest Gate, two weeks ago, at which the basic principles of Muslim prayer and Arabic were explained. In a reciprocal event, young Muslims were welcomed to Wimbledon on Sunday, where Rabbi Tony Hammond spoke to them about the origins of Jewish prayer.
Children from both communities were also given a presentation on ancient calligraphy from the British Library’s Irene Wise.
“I always wanted to see this happen,” Mr Hussain said. “When we were young we didn’t have many Jewish people near Forest Gate. We only knew what we were told, including some negative things.
“As far as the synagogue is concerned, some parents were a bit uncomfortable going to the mosque, but it turned out really well.
“We want to widen the knowledge both sets of children have about other faiths and cultures. We feel interfaith work is really important — we just want to make society a better place. And I was pleased at how many questions the children ask.”
Mr Hussain added: “It’s special because stuff like this doesn’t happen that often, especially in the Forest Gate area. It’s about breaking down barriers — especially among young people. Our religions are so similar.”
Speaking about his time in Israel, he recalled that “being brown and Muslim isn’t the easiest in Jerusalem. I faced a lot of racial profiling.
“But I did see a lot of hospitality and open-mindedness from local people — and more so when I travelled around.
“I got to see that Israeli culture can be very communal and everyone participates in some way. I was always interested in Judaism and wanted to learn more.”
He had met the cheder headteacher, Orli Rhodes, through a friend before going to Israel and got back in touch when he was looking for a Sunday job. Both pupils and parents had been supportive, he reported.
“People are mostly interested in who I am and what I’m doing at the synagogue. I would love to go and learn at an Orthodox synagogue but I don’t know if I would have the same reception.”
Eve Cantor was among parents who accompanied cheder pupils to the Minhaj-ul-Quran centre. She said the children “learned a lot about Islam and we expect other synagogues to follow our lead.
“The cheder team believe this is a really important thing for kids to learn.”
Raffiq Patel, who travelled with the mosque group to Wimbledon, said: “Because Zain has been working here, he’s been able to facilitate this very quickly and easily. Although it’s a bit of a distance, it’s what we should be doing.
“Many Muslim kids may not get to meet someone from the Jewish faith until they’re adults. It’s terrible they’d have to wait many years before meeting a Jewish person. It’s not really acceptable.
“We want them to meet people from other faiths and those of no faith.
“Social cohesion and interfaith cohesion is very important. It breeds tolerance. We want to live together as one community.”
Meanwhile, Mr Hussain hopes to make the exchange trips an annual event to solidify links between the two communities.