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Jewish Heritage Museum Promotes Dialogue with Muslim Students - 2004-06-30

More than 30 students from a private Islamic school in New York toured the Museum of Jewish Heritage last week. Museum and school officials say the tour is part of efforts to establish more dialogue between both faiths.

Thousands of students have wandered through the Museum of Jewish Heritage since it first opened its doors in 1997. But the museum recently welcomed a special group. The children, ranging from six to 14-years-old, were from the Islamic Leadership School, a private religious academy in New York City.

As gallery tour guides led the students through the various exhibits, the children learned about Jewish life in the 20th century, Jewish culture and the Holocaust. The schoolchildren saw examples of Jewish religious texts and learned about the migration of Jews around the world. Museum guides explained the significance of Jewish religious holidays such as Hannukah as well as wedding ceremonies and other celebrations.

Elizabeth Edelstein, assistant director of education at the museum, says reaching out to Muslim students has specific advantages.

"When the students leave the museum today, we hope that they have lots of questions, that they're curious to find out more about Jewish history and the Holocaust. And that this will lead to them seeking out more information, which we hope will lead to understanding more and through this understanding of another culture and its history and the ability to think in a more sophisticated way about the complicated situations they face today," she says.

One of the main themes of the tour was the basic similarities between Jewish and Islamic traditions and the Hebrew and Arabic languages. Sondos, 11, says this was the highlight of her visit.

"The interesting thing that I learned was about the bible, the torah," she said. "It was very interesting because it was like ours. It was kind of similar like ours. About how they go to their church and us too. And they have this special day that they go and get together."

As the sound of chatter and questions from these students filled the halls of the museum, tour guides were also learning about Islam. Sheik Moussa Drammeh, principal of the Islamic Leadership School, says this two-way exchange goes a long way in promoting understanding between peoples of both faiths.

"We decided that as long as we have the ability to create peace, justice and friendship, we will do it. If we can do anything to bring about dialogue, we will do it. It is a long-term process we know, but it is worth taking the first step. And that's why we came here and we'll continue to do that."

The Islamic Leadership School started its first class on September 11, 2001. That, says Mr. Drammeh, is one reason why he feels compelled to foster mutual respect and understanding between his students and the environment in which they live.

It is a worthy goal even if not all the students realized it. Ibraheem, 9, describes his museum experience in 4th grade terms.

"I had learned about things that the Jews had done and how they migrated," he says. "I learned about Hannukah and I also got to talk about my religion also. It was just fun and I liked it."

Museum officials say they hope this field trip will be the first of many trips by schoolchildren from Islamic schools. The museum already has programs catering to students in public schools and other religious educational institutions.