Ben Simon, 13, raised his hand. “Do you remember anything from your past life?”
They didn’t. But, Surbhi said, once when she had gotten a discolored patch on her hand, her mother told her that her son or daughter from a previous life was sending her a blessing.
The students noted similarities in the three religions, including dietary restrictions, food offerings and, in the case of Judaism and Islam, similarities in Old Testament stories and languages.
“In Arabic, don’t you say ‘Salam’ to say hello?” said Sara Fink, 13. “And we say ‘Shalom,’ so it’s similar.”
The AFS students also learned from their peers. Surbhi said she had thought women weren’t allowed into mosques. And in his home country of Armenia, Harut Gevorgyan, 15, had seen mosques across the Turkish border but had never gone into one. “This is my first time,” he said, “and I like how it looks.”
The Jewish faith is opaque to many of the exchange students when they arrive, AFS-sponsored programs coordinator Jody Axinn said. “Judaism is an exotic religion to them,” she said. “They don’t know Jewish people back in their countries, so they say, ‘I can go back and educate people at home about them.’ ”
The program also helps Jewish students see beyond their immediate surroundings, a Beth El teacher, Candice Goldstein, said. The presenters being close to their age “makes a tremendous difference, because it’s not just adults talking at them; these are teens who are a couple years older than them.”
David Whyman, 13, of Beth El, praised the program. “We’re all living in the world together, so we need to know what they are, so we don’t judge them and so we can all get along.”
In early March, when the Beth El kids educate the AFS students about Purim, the Jewish festival of deliverance, he will have a chance to return the favor.
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