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Jewish, Muslim, Catholic students hold interfaith seder

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Students from Leo Baeck Day School, the Islamic Foundation School and Holy Rosary Catholic School participate in an interfaith Passover seder in Toronto on March 27. (Barbara Silverstein photo)

The Leo Baeck Day School in Toronto was the venue for an interfaith Passover seder that brought together its Grade 8 class with students from the Islamic Foundation School in Mississauga, Ont., and Holy Rosary Catholic School.

Some 90 students from the three schools and their teachers gathered in Leo Baeck’s sanctuary on March 27 for an exploration of the common themes in the Passover narrative.

It was an opportunity for these Jewish, Christian and Muslim youth to commemorate the ancient story of Passover and discuss the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, a universal narrative that is important in the liturgy of all three religions.

Eric Petersiel, Leo Baeck’s head of school, noted that his students have been participating in interfaith programs for more than 15 years.

“The students are shocked at the similarities they share with people that they’ve thought are entirely different from themselves,” said Petersiel.

The Passover seder was the fourth meeting of the three school groups. In the first week of March, they all went to HoopDome, a basketball facility in Downsview Park, for an afternoon of basketball and socializing.

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Leo Baeck vice-principal Seth Goldsweig, who has long been involved in intercultural educational programs, said the students needed more time to get to know each other and the basketball event provided that opportunity.

Each team was made up of students from the different schools and they chose to eat lunch with their teams. “They loved being mixed up on different teams. They had a lot of fun sharing this experience,” said Goldsweig.

Some people are now following each other on Instagram and, in the past, there have even been bar mitzvah invitations extended to some students of the other denominations, he said. “It’s what we hope for.”

Arshia Alam, a Grade 7 teacher at the Islamic Foundation School, said she has been co-ordinating the interfaith program for at least 10 years.

She stressed the importance of the students being exposed to people of other cultures, saying that, “The younger kids are looking forward to this experience.”

Her colleague, Shaykh Hassan Ali – who leads services at the school and at a mosque – called the intercultural program “an amazing experience.”

They had a lot of fun sharing this experience.
– Seth Goldsweig

In the early part of the morning, the Catholic and Islamic students were divided into small discussion groups led by the Leo Baeck students. They talked about the 10 plagues and the tradition of donating hametz (bread and other edibles that are not kosher for Passover).

In fact, the visiting students made sandwiches from bread that needed to be removed from the school. The food was later given to a nearby men’s shelter.

Mason Scott, 13, a Leo Baeck student who led one of the hametz groups, said that one of the things he learned when he visited the Islamic school is that during their prayers, worshippers stay on their knees throughout the service.

The students were also divided up for the Passover seder. Several Leo Baeck students took turns leading the service.

The student leaders recited many of the Hebrew prayers and explained their importance. They also led the group in singing traditional Passover songs. There was even an appearance made by Eliyahu Hanavi.

Before they ate the meal, student representatives from Holy Rosary and the Islamic Foundation blessed the food with their respective prayers.

When a few of the Islamic students were asked how they liked the seder, Maarya Siddiqui, 14, said she enjoyed “the apple dish” (haroset).

Aleesha Khan, 13, said she found it interesting to learn about the different traditions.

Leo Baeck student Jenny Shiner, 13, said she liked meeting in small groups before the formal seder.

Her classmate, Ezra Beber, 13, said his favourite intercultural experience was the basketball program. “The students from the different schools were all mixed up on different teams and we played as one.”