Learning ‘the heart of a stranger’

Learning ‘the heart of a stranger’

Innovative program lets Frisch sophomores 'encounter Africa' in Paramus

The students built an African village with a market.

Classroom discussions and texts came to life for Frisch sophomores at a recent event in which they depicted the beauty as well as the travails of life in Africa.

The “Frisch Africa Encounter,” designed to enable students to shed light on the people, culture, and struggles of the so-called “dark continent,” included a multi-media presentation featuring students’ musical performances, artwork, and PowerPoint presentations focusing on life in Africa. (The sobriquet “dark continent” indicates how little the West knew about Africa in the 19th century. It was never intended as a reference to race or skin color, and is not meant in that way here. – Ed.)

Since September, explained Tikvah Wiener, director of interdisciplinary studies, the sophomores in English class have been reading “The Poisonwood Bible” and “Little Bee”; learning about the integration of Ethiopian Jewry into Israeli society in Hebrew class; and working in history class on research projects related to Africa.

The students’ newfound knowledge was shared with an audience at a packed event on Dec. 8, in which the stage was transformed into an African village complete with a hut, classroom, and a video of African women walking long distances to get water.

The event also marked the culmination of a month-long Green-a-thon, in which sophomores raised money to benefit Jewish Heart for Africa (JHA) by performing green acts sponsored by friends and family. JHA utilizes Israeli sustainable technologies in Africa and has helped 250,000 people on the continent, thus far.

The value of such a program, which was the first of its kind at Frisch, said Wiener, is not only that it helps students learn in depth about a continent that has been in the news a great deal lately, but that it also helps to “broaden the students’ worldviews, show them some of the tremendous suffering that exists in the world, and allow them to use their individual talents to express their feelings about it,” she said. “I also wanted the students to see that caring for the world is a deeply Jewish principle, that the great suffering we have experienced as a people has taught us to have empathy for anyone who is in pain.”

The project also provided an opportunity for students to draw on creativity that cannot always be utilized in the classroom, Wiener said.

Sophomore Frisch student Melissa Maza, who created African masks for the program, said that the project familiarized her with an area of the world she previously knew little about. More important, however, it motivated her to want to help the people there. “We can’t just read about a country’s problems, we need to go the extra mile and get involved,” said Maza. “I felt proud knowing I was helping by raising money for Jewish Heart for Africa, which is making a big difference in these peoples’ lives.”

Her classmate, Danielle Fishbein, who helped create the African village onstage, said she never realized how harsh conditions were in Africa before she launched this project. “They have no electricity, they have to walk hours to get water, and the children can’t go to school because they have so many chores. They are dying of malnutrition, they lack vital supplies we take for granted. The standards they are living in really shocked me.”

Marni Loffman echoed her sentiments, saying that she was saddened to learn about the difficult lives Africans lead, including their high mortality rates, dearth of educational opportunities, and lack of a plentiful supply of fresh water, and she felt compelled to do something. “In Chumash [the Five Books of Moses, another word for the Torah], we are learning Shemot [Exodus] this year, and there’s a pasuk [verse] in the text that says, ‘You should know the heart of a stranger because you too were strangers in Egypt.’ So we should help them because we know what it is to be oppressed,” said Loffman.

In addition to learning about the hardships in Africa, however, Loffman said she and her classmates also picked up on all the good that is there. “We learned to appreciate their culture, music, art, and dress,” she said.

In the end, the students discovered that they shared a great deal in common with the African people.

“We were trying to help the stranger, but we realized they are not as much a stranger as we thought,” said Loffman. “They had the same struggles and found a way to survive. Now we are helping them.”

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