Building Bridges

Schools on the East Side are connecting across religious and cultural differences


Otherness can be defined as “the quality or fact of being different.” Our national conversation frequently revolves around otherness; whether those differences be political, racial, gender based, geographic, ethnic, or religious. Difference often induces fear. But sometimes acknowledging that fear can lead to unexpected developments – and even to understanding.

On February 10, 2015, Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were all killed in the home they shared in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Reports pointed to the incident as a hate crime against the Muslim-American college students, eliciting both hostility
and empathy.

A few days later Providence’s Islamic School of Rhode Island (ISRI) held a vigil for the victims. Their school building was then vandalized with vicious racial slurs spray-painted onto the entranceway. Then the opposite impulse revealed itself: fifth-grade students from the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island (JCDSRI) wrote cards of support and healing to their Muslim counterparts.

The frank acknowledgement of fear and misunderstanding by these young people has since become the foundation for an alliance
between the two schools, their families, and the larger Jewish and Islamic communities that begins annually with a cooperative service project on Martin Luther King Day. Originally dubbed Partners in Peace by ISRI Head of School Abdelnasser Hussein and former JCDSRI Head of School Adam Tilove, the project sought input from the Center for Developmental Learning as well as Jewish and Muslim student organizations at Brown University and evolved last summer into Building Relationships: Islam and Judaism (BRIJ), or “the bridge.”

The semester-long program cultivates planning, learning, and friendship between fifth graders at ISRI and JCDSRI, who travel to each other’s schools every Thursday afternoon from January to May to uncover commonalities and make sense of differences. This long-term commitment is what current JCDSRI Head of School Andrea Katzman calls “engaged relationship building.” “Our goal is that our students are really able to practice staying in relationships, despite disagreement, and finding ways of staying connected and bridging divides,” she says. “If education can’t provide that, what are we doing?”

Katzman is pleased that Brown University continues to see the value in the BRIJ partnership by having its students actively participate in the grade-school workshops and by expanding its own dialogue on campus, inspired in part by what the children are doing. “If fifth graders can do it, maybe college students can do it,” she jokes, optimistically.

This year’s BRIJ project began with a workshop conducted by the Sandra-Feinstein Gamm Theatre designed to connect communities through theater, which will culminate with a community-wide event in late May.