The idea of Muslim students in a Jewish school may be blasphemous anywhere else on the planet, but here in Kolkata, it’s a reality.
In fact, doors to the two Jewish schools in the city were opened to other communities, including Muslims, around the same time that Israel was carved out of Palestine six decades ago, triggering a bloody conflict that still rages today.
Attired in a modest salwar-kameez , hijab firmly in place, Shaista Fatima leaves her home in Kolkata’s Rippon Street and heads for school. Friends Farida and Shehnaz Jahan join her on the way and the three demurely make their way through the conservative Muslim neighbourhood. But once they hit Royd Street, their gait acquires a quick confidence. Once inside Jewish Girls School, they slip off both hijab and salwarkameez and slip on the skirt-and-blouse uniform just in time for assembly.
It’s a study in contrast really. Palestinian mothers let their children join the uprising or intifada against Israeli occupation even as Muslim mothers in Kolkata send their wards to schools run by Jews. The former is about death – it’s an honour if the child kills a Jew and brings martyrdom if he is killed in the attempt. The latter is about the hope of a better future.
For most middle-class Muslims in Kolkata, getting their children into a good English medium school is a dream. “Either the fees are too high or kids are refused admission because the parents aren’t educated enough,” says M H Iqbal, whose daughters Zeb and Uzma go to the Jewish Girls School. “The two Jewish schools, on the other hand, are affordable and encourage children from humble backgrounds. For people like me, it means a decent education for my daughters that will open up a world of opportunity.”
That the school is run by Jews, sworn enemies of Muslims in other parts of the world, doesn’t bother him or the other Muslim parents whose children study at the Jewish Girls School in Park Street or Elias Mayer Free School & Talmud Torah in Bowbazar. Together, they have around 2,000 students.
Given that the two schools are located in neighbourhoods with large Muslim populations , it is not unremarkable that two in every three students are from the community. The school, though, is closed on all major Jewish holidays such as Passover and does not function on Saturdays, the day of Sabbath. Though teachings in Hebrew have stopped, students are taught traditional dances and Hebrew songs. “Many Israelis visit to discover their roots as their grandparents have studied here,” says Aline M Cohen, vice-president of Jewish Girls School and committee member of Elias Meyer. “When they see Muslim boys and girls present programmes in Hebrew, they are amazed.”
Shakil Ahmed, whose daughter Shaima is in class X, chose Jewish Girls over the Muslim Saifee Hall. “You try to give the best to your children . Why deny them good education on religious grounds?” reasons Ahmed, a devout Muslim who never goes out without his skull cap. The women in his household wear purdah but he has no problem with his daughter wearing shorts to the playground or singing Vande Mataram at assembly. “The school has its rules and parents respect them,” he says.
The camaraderie between the communities flourishes beyond the school compound. “In the 26/11 Mumbai attack, six Jews, including a Rabbi , were killed by Islamic extremists. But Kolkata remained an oasis of peace,” says Cohen. And the schools a beacon of inter-faith cooperation. TIMES OF INDIA via Religion of Peace
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