February 18, 2020

The Ties That Bind Two Schools of Faith

Azmeralda Alfi is the administrator for the Bureau of Islamic Arabic Education (BIAE).

Aviva Kadosh the director of day school and Hebrew language services for the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE).

And although on the face of it, it may seem otherwise — they have a lot in common.

For the past four years, Kadosh and Alfi have been meeting regularly to exchange pedagogical advice, offer insight into each other’s communities, pay visits to the other’s turf and, above all, continually affirm how educators of different faiths can help each other.

These two women have formed a solid friendship, and whether or not that will eventually lead to an enduring bridge between Jewish and Arab educators in Los Angeles, they have set an important precedent.

“We never talk politics,” Kadosh said. “We focus only on our shared agenda.”

“Our job is education and so we have no problem,” Alfi added. “Ideally, we all come from Abraham and so religion should bring us together but the only way to really achieve that is through education.”

Kadosh and Alfi face similar challenges. Both Jewish and Arab educators deal with students who do not come from religious homes, yet their parents have sent them to religious schools. Both teach language and values that stem from holy texts. Both teach a contemporary spoken language that differs from the ancient written language.

“We both teach children the relationship between the values in our holy texts and who we are today as people,” Kadosh said.

Kadosh and Alfi both work for educational organizations that function as resource centers. Some 150 schools affiliate with the BJE, which offers curriculum development, program funding, accreditation and professional expertise. BIAE, an outgrowth of the Islamic Center of Southern California, primarily provides curriculum and development assistance to a network of four private schools collectively called New Horizon.

Since their first meeting, Kadosh and Alfi have initiated several dialogues between Hebrew and Arabic day school teachers. They also sponsored an event where third-grade students from the Pasadena New Horizon School spent the day with students from the nearby Weitzmann Day School. The students learned what different words meant in both Hebrew and Arabic and together, they read the book “The Secret Grove” by Barbara Cohen, which tells the story of a Jewish boy and an Arab boy who meet in an orange grove on the Israeli-Jordanian border and discover how much they have in common. After the students read the book, they went into the Weitzmann garden and planted an orange tree.

“They had such a good time that day,” recalled Lisa Feldman, head of the Weitzmann Day School. “Throughout all these activities, the kids really gravitated toward each other.”

The success of that event prompted the two schools to cultivate an ongoing relationship. The Weitzmann students visited the New Horizon students at their school while the teachers from both schools began visiting each other. “Not only do the kids have a good time, but also when the teachers meet, they see how much they have in common,” Feldman said. “They have the same issues of teaching a second language and ensuring that religious studies is as valued as secular studies.”

“Exposing children to different ethnic groups and religious beliefs is part of our job as teachers,” said Lina Kholaki, who also serves as the Arabic program coordinator at the New Horizon School. “Being exposed from an early age in a loving and fun exchange of language, tradition and beliefs will ultimately lead to loving and peaceful individuals.”

Kholaki has nothing but praise for Kadosh and Alfi. “These wonderful ladies work very hard to serve their communities,” she says.

Sitting in Kadosh’s office at the BJE, the two educators exhibit what seems to be a genuine mutual regard.

“I’m planning to invite her [Kadosh] over to my house,” says the 70-year-old Alfi, whose hat and dark stockings render her virtually indistinguishable from an observant Orthodox Jewish woman. “I miss her when we don’t speak.”

Alfi and her husband, Omar, a pediatric geneticist credited with discovering a rare chromosomal disorder have been immersed in activism and philanthropy since they emigrated from Egypt in 1970. Their activities have ranged from joining interfaith dialogue groups to helping establish the New Horizon school system in 1984.

“She’s a wonderful woman,” said Kadosh, 60, of Alfi. “And I’m impressed by her work in Arabic studies and by what her family has built in this city.”

Initially, a mutual acquaintance had suggested that Alfi, new to her position a the Islamic Center, contact Kadosh for advice.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” recalled Alfi, who had previously worked in human resources and as a lab manager. “I knew I needed to talk to someone whose language was also related to religion.” Kadosh recently invited eight Arabic language teachers to attend a BJE Day School Educators Conference.

“What’s amazing,” Kadosh said, “is that the Arab teachers talked to the Jewish teachers and discovered that they all dealt with the same problems.”

Kadosh in turn, has been “fascinating and bowled over” by what she has learned from visits to the New Horizon Schools. Observing a prayer service at the Pasadena campus and watching some of the kids apathetically mouth words they didn’t seem to understand, it struck her how “they were behaving just like Jewish day school kids. The issue of kids coming from non-observant homes to learn about their heritage is exactly the same,” she said.

Kadosh and Alfi stress the importance of more teacher and student interaction between the Hebrew and Islamic day school systems and profess an indefatigable commitment to continuing their work.

“We’re going to keep at it,” Kadosh said. “People need to talk to each other and the only way to do that is just to do it and create this tiny drop of peace in the world.”