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Sukkot show and tell.

At first glance, the handful of haphazard wooden structures erected outside Resurrection High School in Chicago looks like a half-finished homework assignment from an Introduction to Woodworking class. But this project is meant to teach about something more crucial than the importance of "measure twice, cut once." It's part of a program that sows the seeds of religious diversity, understanding, and tolerance.

In a few days, these two-by-fours will be draped with sheets and decorated with construction paper leaves, colorful paper chains, and signs boasting school spirit. Even more important--to students craving a study break, anyway--they will be filled with tables piled with cookies, apple cider, and other snacks.

Every year, these Catholic high school girls get a taste of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, a seven-day fall harvest festival that commemorates the 40 years the Jews wandered in the desert after the Exodus, by building their own sukkot (literally "booths") just as modern-day Jews do in memory of their ancestors' temporary shelters.

Inside, in Mr. Finch's freshman World Religions class, the girls are learning about the biblical roots of Sukkot--but not from Mr. Finch. Instead, Rabbi Ruven Barkan of the Chicagoland Jewish High School is reading from Leviticus and giving a show-and-tell demonstration with the various objects used to celebrate Sukkot.

"Sukkot is a celebration of God's creation, so we want to be careful to celebrate it in the right way," Barkan says, explaining the Talmud's strict rules about the etrog ("the fruit of beautiful trees"), lulav ("branches of palms"), and myrtel ("boughs of thick tree foliage"). He demonstrates how shaking the branches six times in each direction represents that "God is everywhere."

Rabbi Barkan also dons his tallit (prayer shawl) and tefilin (the leather straps that hold the box containing a Hebrew prayer to the forehead) and chants a prayer in Hebrew--while a blue-robed statue of Mary stands watch over the class from a corner.

Such juxtaposition would have been unheard of just generations ago. But thanks to the Catholic/Jewish Education Enrichment Program (C/JEEP), high school students around the country are getting a dose of interfaith exposure and education when representatives from the other faith take their show on the road to Catholic and Jewish high schools.

"Having a rabbi come into class gives the students the opportunity to see that we're bridging cultures, and that's part of what this class is about," says Edward Finch, who teaches religion at Resurrection. "It's important for both communities to get to know each other. We learn more about ourselves the more we learn about others."

In fact, enriching the students' own religious backgrounds is one of the stated goals of the program. "First, the Catholic students learn to better understand and appreciate Judaism as a living, continuing tradition," explains Rabbi Larry Edwards, the program's national coordinator. "But also, by coming to understand the really close historical connection between Catholicism and Judaism, they become better Catholics. For both the Catholic and the Jewish students, it kind of sends them back to their own tradition in a deeper way."

In Chicago, the program is cosponsored by the Catholic archdiocese, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and the Sisters of Sion, a congregation of women religious dedicated to improving Christian-Jewish relations. In Chicago, Sion Sister Mary Ellen Coombe visits Jewish schools to teach about Catholicism.

The program also is hosted by AJC chapters in six other cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C. Last year, more than 50 schools participated.

C/JEEP traces its history back more than a decade to Los Angeles. "It really developed out of a friendship between a rabbi and a monsignor," says Edwards. "And it continues to be very much about building relationships."

Back at Resurrection High School, that's exactly what's happening in Sister Christine's afternoon religion class, as Rabbi Barkan and the freshman girls get into a discussion about some of the similarities in their faiths, including the use of scripture and a love of food.

"Is that a blanket?" one girls asks.

"It's a prayer shawl," Barkan explains.

"Do you wear it to church?" asks another.

"We wear it to our `church,' which we call a synagogue," he says.

Fourteen-year-old Heather Liparota says she learned a lot from the rabbi's visit. "I don't know much about the Jewish religion," she admits.

The class hit much closer to home for Melissa Houghton, 14, whose mother is Jewish. Although her parents are raising their children in the Catholic faith, the family does celebrate Passover and Hanukkah. "Judaism is where Christianity originated from, so I think it's important to learn about it," Houghton says. "There were things the rabbi told us that I didn't know."

Barkan tries to explain the importance of both written and oral traditions in the Jewish faith to the girls; he also briefly sketches out the differences between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism. "See, in Judaism we have different understandings of how to live Judaism, just as in Christianity you have different understandings of how to live Christianity."

For Jews, debate and disagreement are not always negative, he explains. "That's what we Jews do: We discuss and we study Torah to see how to live according to it," he says.

"It's good to have disagreements as long as it's to figure out what God says. Only when people who are different are friends with each other, only then is God happy."

LLOYD DEGRANE is a photographer living in Chicago. HEIDI SCHLUMPF is an associate editor of U.S. CATHOLIC.
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Author:Schlumpf, Heidi
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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