Middle School Launches Interfaith Pilot Initiative

A rabbi, a reverend, and an Islamic educator walk into room...it may sound like a bad joke, but when those exact circumstance came to pass in the Middle School Big Room this February, the punchline was an enlightening exploration of faith.

As part of a pilot program undertaken by the Middle School, eighth grade students enjoyed the opportunity to engage in an eye-opening interfaith study and immersion initiative this winter. Over a series of four weeks, students learned about the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) participated in field trips to a synagogue, a church, and a mosque, and attended a panel discussion at BB&N with a rabbi, a reverend, and an Islamic educator.

Middle School Students examine a Torah during a synagogue visit.

Organized by Middle School faculty Stefanie Haug, Sasha Bergman, Youseff Talha, and Beth Brooks, the pilot program sought to demystify misperceptions about the different faiths, and perhaps more importantly, to underscore how much the three faiths have in common.

Based off of feedback from a two-year, School-initiated reflection and query into BB&N's cultural competency, the pilot was a groundbreaking attempt to address issues raised by the students as sources of curiosity.

"When we looked at some of the survey results from our cultural competency work, we discovered that Middle School students had many questions about religion that were not being specifically targeted in our curriculum," says Middle School counselor Stefanie Haug. "We value holistic learning at BB&N...learning about yourself and your relationships to other people is a huge part of teaching. We wanted to find a way to explore the diversity that makes us who we are...and faith is a big part of that."

After much discussion and planning, it was decided that the pilot would focus on the three Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) due to their similar ancestry and the fact they comprise the three largest religious groups in the U.S. The initiative manifested as a series of discussions with Reverend Matt Carriker, Rabbi Natan Margalit, Ph.D., and Islam educator Barbara Sahli, along with visits to each religious leader's respective church, synagogue, and mosque.

In their panel discussion in the Middle School Big Room, the guests spoke about their faith and answered questions from students. All three landed on the same point when asked what they love most about being Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, speaking about the importance of being part of a community that guides people to do good, and live up to ideals highlighted by each faith. As students discovered, all three of the religions share very similar ideals.

Particularly poignant was Sahli's insight into being a Muslim following the 2001 bombings of the World Trade Center. She noted that the first instinct was "put your head down, and hide for fear of anger," but she quickly realized that outreach, education, and dialogue were more essential than ever to allow people to understand that the attacks did not reflect true Islam.

Middle School director Mary Dolbear considers the pilot and ensuing discussions to be some of the most important learning undertaken at the Middle School in her time at BB&N.

"I am deeply proud of our MS Faith Project pilot," Dolbear says. "The guest panel was powerful. The focus on people's stories are always impactful, but for this age group, it was an even more effective format to invite kids into the conversation. A huge takeaway was something we don't get to hear much about: the similarities between the three faiths."

Following the fields trips and panel discussions, students met again to study poetry from each faith, and reflect on what they had learned, including a general discussion about the importance of finding common ground in a community comprised of varying beliefs.

The interfaith pilot was made possible through an Urban Connections Grant, a School-funded resource allowing faculty to implement creative programs that connect curriculum with the verdant urban resources surrounding BB&N.