update deskSchools & Higher Education

Jewish and Catholic teens tackle how to battle hate

“The girls spent time sharing traditions, finding that they have much more in common than they realized,” English teacher Samara Wasserman told JNS.

Eighth-graders in New Jersey from a private Catholic school and a Jewish school are participating in a program during the 2023-24 academic year to tackle bigotry and learn shared religious values. Credit: Amy Vogel, director of development and communications at Yeshivat Noam.
Eighth-graders in New Jersey from a private Catholic school and a Jewish school are participating in a program during the 2023-24 academic year to tackle bigotry and learn shared religious values. Credit: Amy Vogel, director of development and communications at Yeshivat Noam.

Two New Jersey parochial schools for girls launched a program to combat the rise in hate by nurturing friendships and promoting dialogue between religious communities.

Orthodox Jewish school Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, N.J., and Catholic school Academy of Holy Angels in Demarest, N.J., have been bringing together some 70 eighth-graders to grapple with bigotry as they also discover shared values between the two religions.

Teen Interfaith Dialogue
Eighth-graders in New Jersey from a private Catholic school and a Jewish school are participating in a program during the 2023-24 academic year to tackle bigotry and learn shared religious values. Credit: Amy Vogel, director of development and communications at Yeshivat Noam.

The new program was inspired by a speech given by Amy Vogel, development director at Yeshivat Noam, at the Catholic academic institution about her family’s Holocaust experiences. With a Nagel Gen3 Fund received at the beginning of the academic year, Yeshivat Noam middle-school teachers Shira Eisenman and Samara Wasserman developed the program with their counterparts at Holy Angels, creating a new lesson together each month.

“We began the year with ice-breakers, helping the girls feel comfortable with each other, and also beginning to create a space that invites meaningful discussion,” Wasserman told JNS. “We have taught the girls about antisemitic tropes. The girls learned how to identify these tropes in memes they might see online.”

Wasserman said that the girls from Yeshivat Noam weren’t familiar with the tropes the course explored, “so for them, the experience was a bit shocking and sad. The girls from Holy Angels were also not familiar with many of the tropes, but they responded with sensitivity.” 

She recounted that one student had said it was inappropriate to call all Jews white since Jews could be of any ethnicity. “I was really impressed that she knew that,” Wasserman told JNS.

Wasserman reported that students learned about scenarios where they could confront hate, “and they spent time learning what it feels like to be a victim of acts of hate like antisemitism.” Lessons taught students the distinction between “what it means to be an upstander versus a bystander,” the educator added.

The program avoided exploring the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks, seeking to focus on antisemitism and community-building more broadly.

Teen Interfaith Dialogue
Eighth-graders in New Jersey from a private Catholic school and a Jewish school are participating in a program during the 2023-24 academic year to tackle bigotry and learn shared religious values. Credit: Amy Vogel, director of development and communications at Yeshivat Noam.

“We tried very hard to avoid speaking about the conflict between Israel and Hamas,” Wasserman told JNS. “Developmentally, many of these girls are still thinking very concretely, so explaining the many details and nuances of the conflict would require a lot more teaching time than we have with them.”

Students also talked about what brought them together. “The girls spent time sharing traditions about Passover and Easter, finding that they have much more in common than they realized,” Wasserman told JNS.

“They said they hide matzah instead of Easter eggs, and we all realized we have traditions in common,” said 13-year-old Rebeccah Shippie of Holy Angels. “Even though we are different religions, we are all pretty much the same.”

The last meeting as part of the program is scheduled for May, when, Wasserman said, “the girls will reflect on their experiences and growth this year together.”

She told JNS: “During such a dark and difficult time for Jewish people, it’s reassuring to know that there are other people in this world who are invested in doing the right thing and in teaching the next generation to stand up for what is right.”

Teen Interfaith Dialogue
Educators working with eighth-graders in New Jersey from a private Catholic school and a Jewish school are participating in a program during the 2023-24 academic year to tackle bigotry and learn shared religious values. Credit: Courtesy.
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