On Tuesday, when he started school, my oldest son was the only Jewish boy in his class of 30 kids. There are many schools in which that statistic would not be unexpected; an Orthodox Jewish day school is not one of them. But that’s the way it goes here in Birmingham, UK–a place where, we learned upon moving here from the US, the Jewish population has been dwindling for years, but where the Jewish school continues as a thriving, competitive primary school, serving kosher lunch and celebrating Jewish holidays and Israel’s birthday.
As in a typical American Orthodox Jewish day school, my son will daily recite Jewish prayers and learn “limudei kodesh”–a Judaic studies curriculum. He and the other boys will keep their heads covered, per the Jewish tradition. On Friday afternoons, before school ends (early, to give students time to prepare for Shabbat), all the grades will convene for a Kabbalat Shabbat program. A Jewish boy will play “Shabbat Abba” and a Jewish girl will play “Shabbat Eema,” and the Abba and Eema will host a Shabbat table with grape juice, challah, and guests. Most of their guests will be Muslim.
In a climate of growing antipathy between Muslims and Jews everywhere, I could not be happier to be sending my son to a school that will allow him to declare, as he did after a week of camp in the UK, “I made a best friend here. His name is Abdul!” Maybe Abdul-from-camp came from a family and/or community that liked Jews. Maybe not. My son didn’t get to know Abdul long enough or well enough to find out. But at his Jewish day school, which has a growing Muslim population (this year it is estimated between 60 and 70%), there’s no doubt that the Muslims are learning with and about Jews by choice.
In an article written in 2007, Muslim parents interviewed focused on the “similarities” between the cultures as well as dietary laws (kosher food is generally halal). Sensitive to religious needs by nature, the school offers a comfortable environment for the Muslim children, as for the Jewish ones, and even those who are neither (a Seventh Day Adventist family, I’m told, travels 40 miles to send their children to the school). “The ethos of the Jewish faith permeates all aspects of life within a modern, multicultural community,” according to the school’s mission statement. For me, a mother who wants her children to learn about their ethno-religious heritage but also wants to encourage cross-cultural, cross-religious relationships–and, you know, world peace–it’s a dream come true.
I don’t think our little Jewish school in the West Midlands of the UK will solve the problems between Gaza and Israel, or Israel and public opinion worldwide. But it does seem to offer a beautiful model, one that doesn’t ask that we all become secular or all submit to the Christian default in our society. It enables Muslims to learn from us, and also, if less formally, for us to learn from Muslims (it would be nice to see a parallel Muslim school–one that teaches the Koran to a student body that is 70% Jewish). It reminds us that as the descendants, as our mythologies tell us, of the brothers Isaac and Ishmael, we are cousins. It teaches us that we can honor our similarities and respect our differences and if there is something that comes between us, perhaps we can work it out the way British kids do–over a footie match.