Schechter finds common ground with north St. Louis school

Students from Solomon Schechter Day School and City Academy met last week at Schechter in Creve Coeur. City Academy is a private school in north St. Louis.

By David Baugher Special to the Jewish Light

When Naysa Adams asked her new friend Shira Aviv what her personal motto was, the Solomon Schechter seventh grader’s reply found common ground instantly.

“I told her that it was ‘Don’t judge a book or a person by their cover,'” said Aviv, 12. “She said that was hers, too.”

The significance of the coincidence wasn’t lost on Naysa.

“This whole experience of comparing Christianity and Judaism is very life-changing,” the youngster said.

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And for Naysa, very relevant. Though she’s not Jewish, the 10-year-old’s first name means “miracle from God” in Hebrew.

Finding such similarities was the very reason Shira and Naysa were brought together to begin with. It’s all part of a joint effort between SSDS and City Academy, a private school on the city’s north side. Under the program, fifth graders from the predominantly African-American institution have partnered with their sixth- and seventh-grade counterparts from Solomon Schechter. The cultural exchange began late last month when both groups attended a talk by Dr. Ben Carson, a prominent surgeon who spoke at Maryville University. Naysa and Shira met at a Dec. 8 follow up session during which academy students visited the SSDS building on Congregation B’nai Amoona’s Mason Road campus.

It was an enlightening experience for both from the get-go, said Kip Warr, fifth-grade teacher at City Academy.

“They achieved exactly what we wanted them to achieve. It’s not just getting together and interacting well but really noticing amidst difference, commonality,” he said. “From the moment we were getting off the bus, my students were saying, ‘Hey, they have the same notebook’ or ‘I have that shirt.’ That was nice to see in the first 30 seconds of them walking in the door.”

Rabbi Allen Selis, head of school at SSDS, said the program grew out of a similar effort his school had engaged in for the past two years, partnering with Loyola Academy, a Washington Avenue Jesuit middle school. That arrangement ended due to staff changes at Loyola, said Selis, but the program seemed too valuable to give up.

“We still thought it was valuable to get these students into the life experiences of different kids, people who aren’t Jewish, people of color from different parts of the area, different class backgrounds and world experiences,” he said. “This is the real world and we want life at Schechter to include getting a real connection to the rest of the world we live in. Our children will be wiser, smarter and better connected if they see that whole community, not just a little part of it.”

It wasn’t long before SSDS found the route to introduce that diversity.

“City Academy is a great match for Schechter because, like us, they have a very strong focus on academics,” he said. “They are puposefully a small school and they pay a lot of attention to individual students to maximize learning so the missions really line up.”

With an enrollment of about 160, City Academy runs from kindergarten through sixth grade. It draws students from 25 zip codes, more than 70 percent who come from underperforming or unaccredited school districts. Three-fifths of its students come from households making less than $35,000 per year. A non-parochial school, the academy boasts a challenging curriculum, an 8-to-1 student-teacher ratio and high educational standards.

Students from SSDS will visit the school early next year to conduct interviews of their counterparts and decide on a group service project that will bring the two schools together for one more session before the end of the academic year.

This time it was City Academy students doing the interviewing. Seventeen of them are participating in the program.

“I asked what makes her happy,” said 11-year-old Selena Tucker of SSDS seventh grader Melanie Rush, 12. “I really was grateful that I was partnered up with her because we had a lot in common.”

As a fellow student stood nearby demonstrating Hebrew prayers for City Academy students, Melanie agreed noting that she and Selena have the same favorite color and both have younger siblings.

“I like meeting new people and finding what we have in common so we can be friends,” said the older girl. “It’s shown me that you can always find similarities in people.”

Amina Taylor-Allen said she had learned a great deal about Judaism, talking about everything from the intricacies of making a Torah to the meaning of menorahs to the reasons for the kippah worn by her partner, sixth grader Jacob Berry. She said her class had been studying Judaism and other monotheistic religions in preparation for the exchange.

“We all have Abrahamic faiths – Islam, Christianity and Judaism,” she said. “But they have different ideas.”

Her interviewee picked up quite a bit of information, too.

“I’ve learned that Amina is a great person,” said Jacob, 11. “She loves writing and she likes volleyball a lot. She also went to Springfield to learn more about Abraham Lincoln.”

As she put away the Torah scroll after showing it to assembled students during a tour of the school, SSDS teacher Sarah Miller, said the program had done what it set out to achieve.

“It was really wonderful to have our students really having to share about themselves,” said Miller, who teaches Judaics to the school’s 5th through 8th graders. “It’s always positive when our students get to teach others about our religion because I think it helps solidify what it means to them. It helps clarify what they are learning and what are the values that they are being taught to pass on.”

Selis said there was another benefit as well.

“The commonalities brought us together and the differences made it all the more important for us to be together,” he said.