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US School Builds Bridges of Tolerance Between Religious Groups

A Jewish school in California is offering its students a unique opportunity to develop empathy and respect for people of different religious backgrounds. Educators hope the program will build bridges of tolerance and allow the young people to better understand one another.

The faces of children -- look at each one and you will see purity and innocence. Their truth is taught through the harsh realties of today. But what if they were taught about acceptance and tolerance and how to live together despite their differences?

Moarsha Jewish Day School in Orange County, California is aiming to do just that. Teach the children about each other and in turn create an environment where there is no conflict. Eve Fein is the school's director.

"Sometimes, especially since 9/11, there seems to be a feeling of despair and hopelessness. We don't want our kids to grow up as adults feeling that way."

So the school focused their curriculum on teaching the students about "deep respect" and "honor" for others and their beliefs. But rather than teaching the beliefs from textbooks, Fein says they decided to take the classroom where very few have gone before.

"They were just really thrilled to meet different kids and learn about different cultures and different religions. They are not involved with the global conflicts and I think that if we plant these seeds of how to get along and relationship building it could be a better world and even people were doing things like this with kids this age we could make a difference and we can make a difference."

And what better place to start than bringing children from three different religions and backgrounds together: Muslims, Jews and Christians. Each school visited the other, teaching each other about their practices and beliefs. The children say it was educational.

One student, Joshua Don, says, "I learned that Muslim means 'peace' and that there are actually fewer Muslims in Arab countries than in other parts of the world and that a lot of them (are) pretty nice.

Another student, Marisa Hoffman, says her thoughts about others are being challenged. "I learned that most of the things we think about them are not true. It's because of lies that we hear from others."

Principal Jeremy Cavalllaro says parents were amazed. "Their responses were truly amazing. For them it was just another day because nothing really out of the ordinary happened. All these adults were making such a big deal out of it and the kids were just enjoying it for who these kids are. They said, "Wow, we got to play with more kids today and it's just awesome."

Robin Hoffman, a parent of a students, adds, "They learned we all have a book that we cherish… a Koran or the Bible, and the kids realized that we are all just people all in one community who live under the same sky and we all have things that are the same that we all worry about.

"A lot of the interfaith work is about breaking down barriers” says Fein, “but we felt with kids this age they didn't have barriers to be broken down. What we were doing was building bridges through education."

Bridges, which educators like Eve Fein say must be taught at a young age. And Morasha Day School realizes their responsibility to the young students and says they hope to teach them one of the most powerful tools out there - respect.

Kathleen Canter is on the school's board of directors and says they are teaching students to be responsible critical thinkers. "Learning to be thinkers, learning to integrate our faith and knowledge and act in the world and be respectful and tolerant of others is what it's all about. If we can raise citizens and raise adults who are intelligent and can think critically and who can appreciate everyone in the world, the world will be a better place."