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Perspective: Faith Ed.: Teaching about religion in an age of intolerance

Linda K. Wertheimer
Published Nov. 26, 2015

Editor's note: Separation of church and state bans public school teachers from preaching about any particular religion. But how much should schools teach about various religions as a subject? In her new book, Faith Ed.: Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance, veteran journalist Linda K. Wertheimer explores the question, traveling the nation to capture the question in different contexts. One of them was Steinbrenner High School in Lutz, which was engulfed in controversy in 2011-12 when news broke that the world history classes had invited Hassan Shibly, an imam who also was executive director of CAIR-Florida, as a guest speaker on Islam. Here's an excerpt from the book in which Hepah Hussein, a 15-year-old American Muslim, and her classmates from Steinbrenner go on a world history field trip to Epcot in February 2014.

When we got off the bus at Epcot, Hepah and her two project partners let me tag along as they toured the France exhibit and made a video of a skit about the country. Hepah dressed the part of an American tourist for the skit and wore a Washington, D.C., sweatshirt, jeans and black sneakers. Around her neck, she wore a chain with a charm of a crescent moon and a mosque, a gift from her father after he did the hajj. "Are you familiar with the five pillars of Islam?" Hepah asked when I admired the necklace. I said yes, and she said her father had completed the hajj, the fifth pillar. I asked if she would make the same pilgrimage, and she said yes, with whomever she marries. Then, her attention diverted, she pointed at a minaret on a nearby building. "Is that Morocco?" she asked, adding that she was anxious to see the Moroccan exhibit because of the Islamic influence on the country. "Can we go to Morocco when we're done?" she asked her partners. One partner, Katie Wadler, nodded, but the other, a boy, declined. He preferred to go on rides.

With Hepah assuming the role of tour guide, the girls walked on to Morocco. Katie and Hepah, who had two classes together, met at the start of the school year and became friends. Katie, who is Jewish, could relate to her Muslim friend's story about what it was like to be in the religious minority at Steinbrenner. In eighth grade, some peers made a crack about Jews and money when she dropped a penny. Katie grew up in a family well aware of the worst of anti-Semitism. Her grandfather fled Germany as a child during the Holocaust. Katie became Hepah's enthusiastic student as the pair walked through Disney's Morocco. Hepah pointed at the geometric designs on a building and noted that they were common on mosques as well as on other buildings in the Middle East. They entered the exhibit's bazaar and Hepah became giddy with excitement at the sight of shops that resembled markets in the Palestinian territories. She and Katie stopped at a sign with Arabic phrases and Hepah taught the pronunciation for Arabic greetings.

Inside a shop, Hepah held up a package of bakhoor, an incense her mother uses at home, and described how her mother puts it in a wooden, boat-shaped holder and burns it to fill the house with scent. Later, she showed Katie a package of zatar, a spice her aunt and grandmother make from scratch from their herb garden in Jordan. They dip bread in olive oil with the spice and eat it at breakfast. Back in another Moroccan shop, Hepah greeted the sales clerks in Arabic and asked them questions about Morocco because she had never been there. Then, another Epcot visitor walked up and asked the clerks in English, "Is Morocco the one that has the magic carpet?" After the woman walked away, the pair of teens rolled their eyes. Of all the questions one could ask about Morocco, asking about something connected to the movie Aladdin seemed lame. Then again, it was Disney World.

They debated whether to get henna tattoos before they left the Moroccan exhibit. Hepah flipped through plastic-covered pages of designs and ruled it out because the choices were too commercial. Mickey Mouse, in fact, was incorporated into several of the designs. She offered to take Katie to a henna place in Tampa. They walked through the park, stopping at souvenir shops and posing for selfies as they donned hats from China and Mexico. Muslim and Jew, they were aware of their religions' prickly relationship. Did their history class make it possible for them to create such a bond or was it their parents' openness? All Katie knew was she would not have felt comfortable asking Hepah about Islam if she didn't know her. Both girls wished their schools had begun teaching them about the world's religions much earlier.

Katie's mother, Joan Wadler, took it upon herself to provide some of that earlier education after noticing an exclusive emphasis on Christmas in her children's elementary schools. When her daughter was in kindergarten, the children made Christmas trees out of construction paper. She provided materials for her daughter to make a dreidel instead. Then, in the hope of educating the students, Wadler began offering each year to talk about Hanukkah in her children's elementary classrooms. She brought in a menorah and a dreidel and read students a book about Hanukkah. No teacher ever turned down her mother's offer.

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