Suzanne Tobias

Repairing the world: Kids take first step

Streaks of sunlight poured through the windows of Temple Emanu-el as Rabbi Michael Davis picked up a sheet of paper, held it out and pointed to the words:

Tikkun Olam.

Repairing the world.

"This world is broken," Davis told the sixth-graders, who listened quietly. My daughter, Hannah, sat between two friends. I was on a back row with the moms.

"We are handing you this world, and it's full of problems," Davis said. "Do you know how many people didn't have breakfast this morning because there wasn't any food? ... That is a world that's not working right."

I listened and marveled as the students asked questions — What does the Star of David symbolize? What holidays do you celebrate? What makes hot dogs kosher? —and Davis answered.

He explained bar mitzvah, his yarmulke and the Sabbath, and (ever so tactfully) what happens at a bris. And I couldn't help thinking: This ain't your mama's field trip.

My daughter and her classmates had been studying the Holocaust and current world crises, including unrest in the Middle East. Her teachers scheduled a field trip to Temple Emanu-el and the Islamic Society of Wichita, in an effort to deepen the children's understanding of Judaism and Islam.

We spent about an hour at each stop, first the temple and then the mosque.

We learned about the 613 Jewish commandments, or obligatory laws. Davis talked about "tzedakah," or charity, and how giving to the poor is seen not as a magnanimous act, but as an act of justice.

"In the Jewish world view," Davis repeated. "This is what we believe."

At the mosque, we removed our shoes and carried them with us, feeling the carpet beneath our feet. We saw the men's prayer room, then the women's in a balcony above.

Downstairs the kids sat cross-legged on the floor while Awesha Zaheer-Chaudry, a smiling woman in a red head scarf, answered their questions about Islam. She explained prayer times, dietary restrictions, Mecca and Ramadan. She talked about the faith's view of prophets — Noah, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad — adding "peace and blessings" when she spoke their names.

I appreciated our guides' honesty, patience and sense of humor, their willingness to explain their beliefs without proselytizing. I learned a lot. So did Hannah. And I came away grateful for schools that teach tolerance.

Can a pack of sixth-graders end war? Right wrongs? Fix the Middle East? Likely not.

But they can learn. And they can respect others. And they can work, little by little, toward repairing the world.

Tikkun Olam.