Prior to 2001, Rabbi Zalman Kastel saw the world through the lens of his absolute tradition and the narrative of his community.
“I grew up in a mostly Russian-Ukrainian Hasidic Orthodox Jewish community in New York. We were taught Jewish values as being exclusively Jewish. I had no idea of the altruism and depth of spirit of non-Jewish people,” Kastel told The Educator.
“My worldview reflected many stories of Jewish suffering in the villages of Ukraine, but I knew nothing of the dire conditions of the Ukrainian peasants, or the real impact of racism on our black neighbours in New York.”
However, a meeting with a Catholic man in 2001 and Muslim school children in 2002 began to expand Kastel’s appreciation of – and sparked a deep respect for – people from different backgrounds.
“When I realised that Muslims were being subjected to prejudice just as Jews have been, and continue to be, I felt moved to try to right this wrong.”
From this seed grew a flourishing initiative – Together For Humanity (TFH), which today operates as an inclusive educational organisation working with school communities to foster intercultural understanding and help students learn how to deal with differences.
In 2020, Kastel was made a Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of his tireless efforts to bring this initiative to life in as many places as possible.
“Our work is not about spreading a message, rather it is about encouraging awareness, empathy, connection, respect, and curiosity between people of different cultures, ethnicities, and faiths,” Kastel said.
“This is important because prejudice and racism harms both its targets and those whose worlds are smaller because of their misunderstanding of precious people and potential friends.”
TFH recently held its inaugural Victorian Youth Summit at the University of Melbourne, with students from 15 schools from across Victoria's Government, Catholic and Independent sectors attending.
While the summit was the first to be held in Victoria, five summits have taken place in NSW since 2016 and another NSW-based summit is scheduled for Thursday 19 October 2023 at Parliament of NSW and St Stephen’s Uniting Church, Sydney.
Kastel said there have been three successful outcomes of TFH’s mission.
“Firstly, young people grow up strong in their identity, free from the harm of being misrepresented and enjoy a feeling of belonging with everyone around them,” he said. “Secondly, people understand their neighbours accurately, rejecting racism and prejudice; and thirdly, communities coexist with goodwill.”
‘Our students came away with open minds and full hearts, eager to make a difference in their world’
Seven Year 9 students from Star of the Sea College Brighton – a Catholic girls secondary school – recently had the privilege to attend the Victorian Youth Summit as part of their school’s Religious Education and Living Justice program.
“In a post-COVID world, it is important for students from diverse backgrounds to come together to have their voices heard on issues that impact them, and the communities they live in,” Regina Hooper, Social Justice Leader at Star of the Sea College Brighton, and Religious Education Leader Nicole Harkness, told The Educator.
Hooper and Harkness said that along with other schools from across Victoria, the summit allowed students to network with other students by sharing their concerns and ideas.
“Furthermore, the experience empowered students to see themselves as ‘change makers’ by presenting their ideas for promoting diversity, inclusion and connectedness to politicians and community leaders,” they said.
The summit also gave students the opportunity to speak about the benefits of the school’s ‘Companions Program’, which matches students with residents from an aged care facility.
“This intergenerational program facilitates positive and impactful relationships, mental health and well-being for everyone involved. But more importantly, our students listened to the concerns and stories from others. They were surprised and saddened to hear of the many social justice issues that impact their contemporaries,” Hooper and Harkness said.
“Our students came away with open minds and full hearts, eager to make a difference in their world. With our own school motto ‘Deeds not Words’, students have been challenged to use this knowledge when advocating for others and taking action to create a more just world.”
Heidi, one of the College’s students who participated in the summit, said TFH taught her the importance of expressing her individual view, along with many diverse and interesting opinions that were expressed during the event.
“I found it to be such an immersive experience to be surrounded by so many complex cultures and identities. This really broadened my opinion and understanding of the diverse community that I live within,” she told The Educator.
“I found it so fulfilling and incredibly empowering to have the opportunity to talk to a panel of political figures that were open to hearing the ideas we had to put forward. We continue to put our companions' initiative into action in the hope that other schools will pursue this incredibly fulfilling act.”
Breaking down stereotypes and reducing biases
Shadia Ghazi, PreKindergarten-Year 6 Coordinator at Arkana College, an Islamic independent primary school in the Sydney suburb of Kingsgrove, said TFH’s programs helped her students engage in intercultural discussions and activities that foster understanding and empathy for people from diverse backgrounds.
One of the most powerful aspects of the program was the introduction of ‘Interfaith Iftars’ hosted by Arkana College during Ramadan, Ghazi said.
“This event not only highlighted the importance of respecting and celebrating each other's faith practices, but it also fostered a sense of unity, allowed attendees to question their assumptions, analyse different viewpoints, break down stereotypes and reduce biases,” she told The Educator.
“By facilitating interactions between students of different faiths and cultures, these programs build respectful relationships, extending beyond immediate circles. Students who participated in the program have reported increased awareness of diverse cultures and a greater willingness to engage in cross-cultural interactions.”
Izhaaq Akkawy, Vice Captain and Year 6 student at the College, said one of the most important things he learned from the program was that no matter what school, culture or religion someone comes from, they all have something in common and can all learn from each other.
“I’ve put this teaching into practice when deciding with my parents which high school to attend. We're currently discussing the possibility of me attending a Catholic high school,” Akkawy told The Educator.
“Prior to being involved in the program, this would have made me anxious, but because the program provided opportunities to interact with students from other faiths, it has given me the confidence I need to make friends and succeed in any school.”
‘A very special opportunity for our students’
Sonia Slonim, Head of Humanities and Social Science at Leibler Yavneh College, a Jewish school in Melbourne, said a prominent “aha” moment was when students realised the power of collaboration and collective action.
“Through working in groups coming up with ideas on how to overcome racism, students realised that anti-Semitism is one form of racism,” Slonim told The Educator.
“When engaging in workshops and discussions, they learned that their individual voices are strengthened when combined with others who share similar concerns and aspirations.”
Slonim said this realisation motivated students to think broadly about the changes they wanted to see in their community and their role in working together to make a difference.
“Many students expressed the eye-opening nature of hearing firsthand accounts of challenges faced by their peers and how those experiences impact their outlook on various issues,” she said.
“It was a very special opportunity for our students to present their ideas on combatting anti-Semitism in the public space with politicians and change-makers.”
A meaningful way to create deeper connections with others
Meital Wiseman, a Year 9 student at the College delivered a presentation on anti-Semitism along with his peers during the Youth Summit, where together they outlined the issue and offered solutions.
“We also participated in workshops and activities, which gave us the opportunity to learn about some problems other students face, such as cultural diversity and racism,” Wiseman told The Educator.
“As well as a great way to make new friends from other schools, the Youth Summit was a forum for us to listen and be heard.”
Wiseman said he and his peers also found that they had much in common with the students from the other schools and could relate to their experiences.
“We also had the opportunity to talk to Members of Parliament about issues and ideas raised and hear their responses,” he said.
“Listening to other presentations on LGBTQ+ in schools, cultural diversity and neurodiversity gave more insight to and awareness of these issues. The presentations were solutions focussed and gave us ideas for what we can do to make our community a better and more inclusive space.”
Wiseman said he and his peers gained several important skills from the Summit, such as leadership and public speaking skills.
“All of the Yavneh delegates found the experience enriching and a meaningful way to create more connections with others.”
NSW high schools are invited to apply online for the Youth Summit through the Together For Humanity website. Schools must complete an Expression of Interest form. Places are limited so apply ASAP. For more information, please contact: Andrea Hogg on [email protected] or 0493 024 228.