Conversation flowed easily from war and faith, to weekend party plans during a Middle-East-meets-West video conference between Father Henry Carr Catholic students and their Jewish peers at a school in Israel this week.
The hour-long, early-morning Skype date between the north Etobicoke high school students and those from Tichon Hadash Herzliya, a school near Tel Aviv, was facilitated through the Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s Face to Faith program. The innovative – and international – school program links students from 19 different countries worldwide via video conference to discuss global issues from a variety of faith perspectives.
Carr’s Grade 11 World Religions teacher Miles Fernandes said Monday’s Face to Faith conference between his students and those in Israel was just the second in a series of such cyber meetings – the first took place last month with Hindu students in India and the third is coming up next week with Sikh students in the United States.
“The whole idea is for them to come together and explore their similarities and differences, and to come to realize that they are brothers and sisters, after all,” Fernandes said. “That they can live together in peace and harmony no matter what their beliefs may be.”
Jo Malone, a Face to Faith co-ordinator who moderated Monday’s Skype discussion from the United Kingdom, encouraged students from both schools to move “beyond just a chit-chat to a dialogue about your lives, your experiences, your faith and your beliefs.”
And students on both sides did just that.
From the other side of the Atlantic, Carr students heard first-hand about the Israeli students’ fear of the ongoing war being waged over nearby Gaza and their trepidation over the possibility of being conscripted to serve in the Israeli army as soon as they turn 18.
But, despite those fears, they also heard from the Israeli students of a deep devotion to both country and faith.
“I feel that it’s my job, my duty to join the army and to stand up for my country and beliefs. I fear it, yes, but I have to do it,” said one of the female Israeli students, echoing the sentiments expressed by many of her classmates. “I must do it for my country.”
Carr student Shereen Niranjan, 16, was taken aback by that faith-over-fear perspective.
“I was surprised by the fact that a lot of the students, despite their fear of where they are situated and the fact that some of them will have to go into the military, that they were still proud of their country and that their belief was still so strong,” she said.
From war, Monday’s discussion turned to multiculturalism in both countries and the discrimination it sometimes brings with it.
Carr students were surprised to find that the Israeli students boasted a diversity level that rivaled that of their own. While the 15 or so participating Carr students hailed from countries as diverse as Jamaica, Ghana, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and India, some of their counterparts in Israel had previously lived in China, England, Belgium, Russia, Thailand and the United States before their families settled in Israel.
With such cultural diversity also comes religious differences – a divide both sets of students admitted can sometimes bring clashes of violence and discrimination.
But that’s something Carr student Chris Adjei-Bediako, 16, said he just can’t understand.
“Recently, I’ve been reading the scriptures and I came up with this idea that basically Christians, Jewish people and Muslims are all pretty much brothers because of Abraham,” he said.
In the Jewish and Christian traditions, Abraham is the father of the Israelites through his son Isaac, while in the Islamic tradition, Abraham is considered an ancestor of the prophet Muhammad, through his first-born son Ishmael, he explained.
“So when I hear how Muslim and Jewish and Christian people are having religious disputes, I don’t really agree with it because I can’t see how people can’t see that we’re all sort of related,” Chris continued. “And when people come down on Muslims, I don’t find it right when they say ‘they don’t like us’ because I don’t think that’s true – those are just the extremists who misinterpret their own religion.”
Having witnessed such violence in their own country, the Israeli students spoke first-hand about how religious differences can tear people apart – but said that amongst their generation of peers, a new tradition of love and acceptance is growing.
“There are differences between each religion, but most of us here just accept those differences,” said a female student. “There’s, like, a little community which are extreme, but it’s just that community. Most of us love each other and care about each other.”
Another Israeli student said peace amongst all different faiths will come when the heads of those beliefs come together in peace: “It all actually depends on the leaders of different religions and what they convince their believers to think, because I think most of us actually believe in harmony.”
At the end of the conference, both Carr students and those from Tichon Hadash marvelled at how similar their viewpoints are despite the thousands of miles between them.
The ultimate lesson learned by the Carr students, said 16-year-old Brillana Brown, was respect for all.
“We’re all the same. Our religions may be tweaked a little bit, but we’re basically saying the same thing,” she said. “We’re all one people under one sky, so we should all respect each other. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you believe, it matters who you are and what you want to become. Your faith defines you in a way, but it doesn’t define who your friends are.”