A rabbi, a sheik, a Catholic and an agnostic walk into a school… It sure sounds like the beginning of a silly joke, but it’s actually a typical day working for Together For Humanity, a multi-faith, not-for-profit organisation, which helps schools and communities to embrace cultural and religious differences.
In 2002, Rabbi Zalman Kastel was sitting at home after a 12-hour day in Synagogue, when a call came through from a man named Joe – a Catholic studying Theology, concerned about the loss of spirit within religious communities. “He wanted to talk to a rabbi, so I thought I’d spend a couple of minutes with him. I come from quite a conservative part of the Jewish community, so I’d never had a deep, meaningful conversation with anyone outside my own faith about this sort of stuff,” says Rabbi Kastel. “It was a revelation for me, how altruistic and deep and spiritual this guy was. It got me thinking that there’s more to people that seem different to us than meets the eye. When you scratch under the surface, everybody sets out caring about love and compassion.”
That conversation planted an idea which has grown into an initiative founded by Rabbi Kastel, fostering inter-faith and intercultural friendship. (Although there are areas in Sydney like Newtown and Marrickville that are melting pots, so many people still live in their cultural bubbles, he says). So began a journey that has since seen the Rabbi (and his culturally-diverse crew of inspiring speakers, including Aboriginal elders, Pacific Islanders, agnostics and athiests) speak to over 100,000 schoolchildren (and teachers) across Australia, challenging perspectives, stereotypes and prejudices one enlightening day at a time.
“The first time I ever spoke at a Muslim school, Arkana College, in Sydney’s Kingsgrove, I remember feeling worried about how I – a Jewish guy from St Ives – might be received. I put on a white knitted hat instead of my normal black velvet one, and took off my glasses to look more Muslim – whatever that’s supposed to look like. I needn’t have worried. I met the most divine kids – no different from mine – with bright shining eyes, who were excited about doing good things and making the world a better place. Of course that shouldn’t have been a surprise,” he says.
The social impact the organisation makes on both students and teachers is a lasting one. “Often we bring kids from different demographics and backgrounds together, and it’s powerful seeing the empathy developing between them,” Rabbi Kastel explains. “In the morning, they look wary and uncomfortable – we mix them up intentionally as part of the program, but by morning tea, they tend to fall back into their comfortable school groups. By the end of the day, the barriers have come down. The next time they see each other, you see the kids drawn together, like long lost friends.”
What actually divides people is just semantics – different ways of thinking about the same things.
There’s also a tremendous empathy that grows between the students and presenters. “We had a Muslim speaker recently, who talked about her experience during the Lindt Café Siege. She talked from the heart about what that day was like – her absolute fear of walking down the street with her kids and how much the #Illridewithyou hashtag meant to her – it was huge. When kids hear stuff like that they’re really moved.”
So what’s the key to breaking down cultural or religious prejudice? Rabbi Kastel cites three things: The first is inter-group contact – and spending time with people from different backgrounds, second is empathy and hearing people’s stories, and the third is embracing difference in a holistic way – not as a token gesture, but as part of a larger strategy.
“Our ultimate goal is not the eradication of prejudice, because prejudice always pops up,” says Rabbi Kastel. “I’d be satisfied with people being energetically engaged with combatting prejudice. The question is when you have prejudice, do you say, “hang on a second, does that really make sense?” Question your assumptions. You have to recognise that whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, there are ratbags in every group. If people are engaged with developing intercultural understanding, and being reflective about their thoughts, then I think that’s good enough. Even if they have prejudice, but are willing to question it, they’re open to correction and new information.”
For Rabbi Kastel, what began as a way of teaching others tolerance and understanding has also had a significant impact on his own outlook. “I’m far more respectful of people outside my own faith and I profoundly value the relationships I’ve forged with people from other communities,” he says.
“Often, what actually divides people is just semantics – different ways of thinking about the same things. We’re all just people, similar in our difference. We think deeply, we’re altruistic, we love deeply, we seek meaning in our lives, we’re rich and complex and beautiful and weird and flawed – but through it all we share that same rich tapestry of being human.”