Third graders break interfaith barriers, one game at a time

Third grade students Fatimah Al-Jaff, Jordyn Green, Karissa Hsu, and Audrey Roberts and  work together to keep a balloon afloat during Operation Cooperation, bringing together Muslim, Christian and Jewish students, held last week at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. Photo: Andrew Kerman

By Margaret Gillerman, Special to the Jewish Light

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait for a single moment before starting to improve the world.” This quotation by Anne Frank is posted in large letters on a wall at Saul Mirowitz Community School in Creve Coeur.

They may not realize it now, but the third graders at Mirowitz already are helping to improve the world by showing that people of different religions — Muslims, Christians and Jews — and different races can get along harmoniously. The 8- and 9-year-olds are solving problems and becoming friends with children of different faiths as participants in Operation Cooperation, a program developed and run by the educational nonprofit EnTeam.

Operation Cooperation brings together third grade students and their teachers and parents from four different religious schools in west St. Louis County: Al-Manara Academy (Muslim), St. Monica Catholic School, Kirk Day School (Christian) and Mirowitz. The program hopes to break down barriers by encouraging the children to play problem-solving games collaboratively.

They meet at four workshops a year and enjoy snacks at “get-to-know-you” periods.  The four schools take turns hosting the events.

Ted Wohlfarth, EnTeam’s founder and executive director, says that bringing children of different backgrounds to play and problem-solve can help them become “more cooperative, more tolerant and more respectful” of diverse people. Over 1,000 third grade students have taken part over the last 14 years. 

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Kids are kids

Last Thursday, Mirowitz hosted one of the workshops for their Christian and Muslim friends — about 100 third graders in all. The school lunchroom was filled with tables and pint-sized chairs for the kids’ important work.

“Today is one of my favorite days of the year,” Head of School Cheryl Maayan said, welcoming the students, parents and teachers.

Both Mirowitz and its legacy Solomon Schechter Day School have taken part in Operation Cooperation, started in 2001, shortly after the 911 tragedy.

For Claire Spector, Isabelle Vickar, Caleb Arnow, Lia Lev and a total of 26 Mirowitz third graders, Operation Cooperation last week was a special time unlike their other school experiences.

“It’s cool to learn about people of different religions,” said Caleb, the son of Rabbi Noah Arnow and Tammy Arnow. “I like that we all work together and get to think together.”

Each child is assigned to a team of eight, with two children from each faith-school. The same children typically are with each other all through the school year.

 The first game –Uplifting Friends – at last week’s event called for groups of four children to hold hands in a circle while keeping a balloon in the air.  The children giggled and shrieked as they bounced the balloons off their heads, elbows and knees.

The second game challenged pairs of students of different backgrounds to find something that both enjoy doing and then to draw a picture of it. The purpose was to get two children to work together to draw one picture of something they have in common, and the pictures were put on display.

Sitting with her team between games, Mirowitz student Claire said, “I like meeting kids of different religions, not just people of my religion. We get to learn all about other people and we all like to play together.”

Claire joined in a circle for the balloon game with her school pal Isabelle Vickar, Anna Bacott of the Kirk School and a Muslim girl wearing a cream-colored hijab with sparkles and a band of purple. (The Muslim child’s parents did not wish her name to be used.)

Anna, who was there for the first time, was all smiles. She came dressed in her plaid Kirk skirt and a Kirk sweater.   The little girl said she has an older Jewish friend and that she lives by a mosque.

Anna Woodrow, her teacher, said, “Anna is very excited to be here.” Until a few weeks ago, Anna was being home schooled.

Another Mirowitz student, Lia Lev, whose family has strong ties to Israel, was playing during a get-acquainted period with new and old friends alike.

It made no difference to her that some of the Muslim children were wearing religious dress.

“I’m fine with it,” Lia said. “I like making friends with them.  It’s fun.”

Lizzie Berkowitz, a third-grade teacher at Mirowitz, smiled as she watched the children play together.

“Kids are kids are kids,” said Berkowitz, who has participated for several years. “It’s the most powerful team-building experience I could possibly give them.”

“It’s amazing — the kids get to know each other so well,” Berkowitz said. “At the end, they get each other’s phone numbers and they go on play dates.

“And it’s not just the kids,” Berkowitz added. “The educators and parents also get to talk and know each other and they probably would never have met each other without this program.” Berkowitz is one of two third-grade teachers at Mirowitz. The other teacher participating is Gaby Tullman.

Muslims and Christians praise program

Also attending was Breshna Habib, a mother and teacher at Al-Manara Academy.

“I think it’s lovely that we are all here together,” Habib said, adding that she enjoyed meeting parents and teachers from the Jewish and Christian schools.

At the end of two hours, the children gathered in a large circle and called out what they had learned:  “be fair,” “have fun with a buddy,” “be careful and don’t get hurt” and “work together.”

“Be kind to others,” said Zaria Watson, a St. Monica Catholic School third-grade student. Her mother Jill Watson, who also attended, said, “It’s a good thing to mix with other kids. Once they get to know each other, they see they have a lot in common.”

Wohlfarth incorporated the nonprofit EnTeam: Learning to Win Together in 1995.

“I’d been working on this since my children were little, and now they have children,” said Wohlfarth, whose background is in economics and industrial real estate.  “I want kids to understand that there doesn’t always have to be a winner and a loser…that they can transform win-lose into win-win.”

Tom Evans, EnTeam’s outreach director, said that, “even though we have differences in our beliefs that cannot be completely reconciled, we can still be good neighbors…”

Wohlfarth also is assisted by Dina Rinder, who was a Schechter parent when her own three children went through the program. Rinder said Operation Cooperation offered her children and others “an opportunity” they wouldn’t otherwise have had.