Perhaps the Middle East peace process can take some pointers form a group of school children who joined together for Big Sunday on May 2. Fifth and sixth grade students from the religious school at University Synagogue of Irvine and New Horizons, a Muslim day school in Irvine, joined together in a project benefiting the environment. The joint effort of the students for Big Sunday was inspired by the longtime friendship of Sue Penn, the director of education at the synagogue, and Dina Eletreby, the principal at New Horizons.
Along with teachers, parents, and some siblings, the students were scheduled to remove invasive mustard plants from Mason Park through Back to Natives, an environmental group. However, some bureaucratic snafus kept the students from University Synagogue from working with the New Horizons students. The kids were disappointed, but Penn opted for Plan B – picking up trash. “Despite the mixup…” Says Penn, “The kids were still able to contribute in making a difference, meet students from New Horizons, and have fun.” The point of the day, to make a difference, was not lost in the change. The students ended up being more flexible than the park ranger, a tribute to the resilience of children. The mixup also sparked the idea for future programming between the schools, which will allow for further education, dialogue, and better understanding.
The mission of Big Sunday is to build community through community service. Volunteers come from all kinds of neighborhoods, and work in all sorts of neighborhoods. The idea, according to the website, is that everyone has some way that he or she can help somebody else. Synagogues, churches, non-profits, and community groups worked together the weekend of May 1 and 2 in Orange County. University Synagogue was a bustling hub of mitzvah projects spread across Orange County. Lynn Friedman and Anita Mishook, chairs of the Tikkun Olam Committee, conducted the well-orchestrated event, utilizing the religious school and members of the synagogue to provide service to agencies across the county.
Students from University Synagogue and New Horizons had not met prior to the event. Many of the students at New Horizons had some trepidation about how the Jewish students would feel about Muslim students.
“They were a little nervous,” says Metra Salem, New Horizons’ school psychologist. “Many of them were not sure what to expect.” But the issue of religion never came up. What you saw were children working together – working hard – to fulfill a commitment to making a difference. That is something our two religions share: in Judaism it is called tzedakah – charity; in Islam it is called zakat. It is ironic that the children were asked to pull up mustard plants. The mustard seed, which is one of the tiniest seeds around, grows prolifically into huge plants with very little attention – perhaps there is a lesson here.
Despite any differences, on Big Sunday these children managed to find similarities to help make the world a better place. I was there for most of the morning, and despite the mixup of paperwork and the rigid park ranger, the morning captured the essence of Big Sunday. It also offered a tiny glimpse of what we all hope and pray for: a possibility that there can be peace among our differences.