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Muslim, Jewish and Christian teens finding a way to connect

This group of Muslim, Christian and Jewish students participating in an interfaith program spent their first meeting getting to know each other last year at Pinstripes in Overland Park.

For the past year, a group of 18 high school students from the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, Islamic Center of Kansas City and Notre Dame de Zion have been getting together to connect and to learn about each other. Meeting several times this year, they gather for social encounters and community service programs.  

The program is the result of one man’s vision — Stephen Cloud. He wanted a way to help people to connect.

Several years ago Cloud, a Kansas City businessman and an active participate in the Republican party, did not like what he was seeing. He said he noticed conflict in the Republican party with “our Muslim brothers and sisters.”

“I did not like it, but did not know enough about Islam to make any judgment.”

So, he called the Islamic Center of Kansas City to learn more.  

“As months went by,” he said, “I continued to see divisiveness at the national level and the community at large. I decided that I needed to get started on a first step in solving this problem that I could do myself.”

Cloud decided that he wanted to start a program for high school students from three different faith communities to interact with each other. He believed, “that this would be a step in the right direction.”

He began with the Islamic School of Greater Kansas City. He had been in contact with Saba Hamouda, the principal, during his quest for information, and struck up a friendship. She immediately agreed to join the program.

His next contact was the Jewish Federation. They put him in contact with Zohar Flacks, HBHA’s director of Jewish life.

“She was an absolute god send. She was what the concept needed because she is great with detail and organizing,” Cloud noted.  

Flacks and Cloud met with HBHA’s Head of School Howard Haas, who approved the program.

Cloud needed one more component, a Christian school. As an Episcopalian, he originally wanted representatives from his denomination. When that did not work out, the group went first to Notre Dame de Zion, which joined the program last year.  

Each school has an adult supervisor. For HBHA, it’s Flacks; the Islamic Center is represented by Jaime Banyalmarjeh; while Penny Selle represents Zion. Their work behind the scenes has led to a successful program, now in its second year. A second group started at each school this year, with Rockhurst High School joining the group in conjunction with Zion. Marvin Grilliot is the Rockhurst supervisor.

They start with ninth- and 10th-grade students, six from each faith group. They are hoping this can become a three-year program for each group. The first year the students did volunteer work at Jewish Vocational Services. 

“We had the children learn about each other as they were engaged in projects to work with refugees,” Flacks said.  

According to Flacks, the group plans to choose a different charity each year, hoping to do a rotation through the different charities. This year, they are considering Della Lamb or the Islamic Circle of North America that runs a shelter in Raytown.

The initial group of students — now in their second year with the program and in grades 10 and 11 — is doing something different. They helped to design the program and this year they wanted to visit each other’s school and learn more about their faith community.

Making the world a better place is Cloud’s ultimate goal.

“I hear ugly conversations happen with adults about another group,” he said. “My hope is that enough of these students get oriented, they can interject and change the conversation. I hope it would be one small step in making the world a better place.”

His plan appears to be working among those who are in the program.

Flacks said, “The most important and valuable part of the program is the breaking down of the stigma. At first the students were nervous about being with someone who looks different from them, but when they talk about everyday life, they are the same. It is acknowledging the differences, while celebrating the differences.”

The students who attend HBHA agree that the program is important and is helping them make new friends.

“In the environment that I am usually in,” said Sara Saidel, “I do not know a lot of people who come from diverse backgrounds. I think it is good to surround yourself with people who are different than you. We learn from each other. We actually are becoming friends. We are excited to see each other.”

Her thoughts are echoed by two other participants. Sagi Rudnick said, “I wanted to do this because I am a firm believer in cooperation between people. I think we grow by spending time with people different from us. The best part for me is getting to know the cultures of my peers from different religions.”

Ayelet Schuster discussed the religious component. She said, “I do not have as broad an understanding of people outside of the Jewish community. I wanted to see how people outside of Judaism work and how their religions work. I think it is really cool getting to know the people. We have really interesting conversations about how we are as a people and how our school community works. It is interesting to see how different, but how really similar they are to my own community.”

Flacks works closely with the adult supervisors at the other schools. They plan the dates for the meetings and help select the students who will be involved.

There are plans to have all the students meet together this spring. Not just the two groups involved in the program, but all the high school students at the HBHA and the Islamic Center, along with some of the theology classes at Zion and Rockhurst.

Cloud currently pays for the program, and for now he hopes to fund it for at least another two or three years.

“I said I would fund it because I have seen really good ideas that bogged down in red tape if there is no funding,” Cloud said. “I wanted it to really happen. I wanted to demonstrate the success before I started asking for money.”

He then hopes the schools and other outside donors will help pay for it. Cloud is semi-retired, as the chairman of the board of IBT Industrial Solutions, and hopes to continue to do good in the community. This program is one of the projects he wants to continue.  

“I think a side benefit is that the adults who are now involved have also benefited from this process,” Cloud said. “The adults are becoming friends and interacting. It is an impact that I had not even thought about happening.”

“I cannot claim originality” ... about this program, Cloud said, “but I can claim continuity. As long as the students are benefiting I hope to help.”