CAIRO - Hoping to reach a common ground, students from Pasadena Muslim and Jewish religious schools have engaged in a new interfaith program of mutual visits and activities to break barriers in the central Californian town.
"From our point of view, we thought Muslims don't like us so we were kind of scared to come and probably the same for their side," Adi Wasserberg, a seventh grader at Sinai Akiba Academy, told Pasadena Star-News.
"We thought, what if they bomb us?"
The 13-year-old Wasserberg was speaking about her thoughts before her school's recent visit to the Islamic New Horizon Pasadena school in Pasadena, Los Angeles.
The visit's activities at New Horizon included an interfaith scavenger hunt, an interactive drama session about stereotypes and the chance for some 60 Sinai Akiba students to observe their Muslim colleagues in prayer.
It was preceded by an earlier visit last February to Sinai Akiba, where Muslim students observed a Jewish prayer service, toured the school and examined a legal case with First Amendment issues.
Each student is paired up with another of the opposite faith.
During last Wednesday's visit to the Islamic school, the Jewish Sinai Akiba Academy student met an unexpected 'buddy'; her new Muslim friend Allia Aldarmaki.
Then we saw her, (and thought) how can she bomb us? It's not possible, Wasserberg said.
It makes all your stereotypes go away.
As for Aldarmaki, the interfaith program has helped drive home the point that Muslims and Jews can be friends despite the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"People think you can only be friends with these types of people but that's not true; you can be friends who whoever you want," Aldarmaki, a New Horizon student, said.
"Everyone's really nice so I love the experience."
Though there are no official figures, America is believed to be home to nearly eight million Muslims.
A 2010 report of the North American Jewish Data Bank puts the number of Jews in the US at around 6.5 million.
Held for the second consecutive year, the interfaith program between Pasadena Jewish and Muslim schools was praised for its unique nature.
We don't know of any other Islamic school that is doing this at the middle school level, Amira Al-Sarraf, New Horizon's head of school, said.
Al-Sarraf said the program is probably the most exciting project she's been involved with since she began working at the school 25 years ago.
"You guys are very special to be a part of this at a young age," Al-Sarraf told the participants.
"We really hope you take away from this experience feelings of openness, positive feelings, understanding and respect."
Gathering in interfaith activities, seventh graders Freddy Kushnir, Noah Danesh and Kiana Dadbin of Sinai Akiba listened to their Muslim friend, Wania Ahmad, describe Islamic prohibitions that apply during the holy month of Ramadan.
Ahmad also talked about some of the most important Muslim holidays, including Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the Prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son to God.
"That's in the Torah too," Kushnir and his classmates said.
Rebecca Berger, who teaches Judaism at Sinai Akiba, said she came up with the idea for the program after she heard some of her students make stereotypical comments about Muslims.
"These kids are our future," Berger said.
"If we want things to change in our world, it starts with 13-year-olds."
Interfaith ties between American Muslim and Jewish leaders have a history of successes.
Founded in 1989, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding has worked for years to improve black-Jewish relations as well as Latino-Jewish relations.
In recent years, the group has focused on Jewish-Muslim relations, planning a series of efforts to promote understanding.
The group has launched an initiative titled Twinning Mosques and Synagogues to promote ethnic harmony and build inter-group grassroots ties.
Since the initiative began in 2008, it brought together 50 Jewish and 50 Muslim congregations across the United States and Canada at one-on-one programs.
A group of high-profile Muslim and Jewish organizations participate in the initiative, including the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the World Jewish Congress (WJC), the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims (CAJM).