Fears of increasing extremism, polarisation and populism dominate the news but World ORT students are bucking the trend by taking part in an exciting international initiative aimed at fostering tolerance, communication and pluralism.
The 16 students from Argentina, Mexico, Spain and Israel are among 75 teenagers from eight countries gathering at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for next week’s Interreligious Citizenship Encounter – four days of learning from and with each other as they formulate joint projects. On the final day, students will present their ideas, artworks and social projects to academics from 70 universities who have gathered for the Scholas World Congress to develop a “culture of encounter” for peace.
The programme is an initiative of Pope Francis and aims to encourage young people to take an active role in civil society by tapping into their experiences and concerns and making positive changes in themselves and their communities.
Leon Benhamu and Yosef Edery, students at the latest addition to the World ORT network, Estrella Toledano School in Madrid, were bubbling over with excitement about going.
“We want to share with people from other countries, cultures and religions how it is to be Jewish in Spain,” they said. “We want to talk about our traditions, our tefilot (prayers), our school and our life; and, most exciting, to get to know other religions through people our own age and becoming friends with them.”
Joining the ORT students will be other 15- to 17-year-olds from Kenya, Burundi, Congo, Brazil and the Palestinian Authority – the kind of diversity which also characterises Escuela de Vecinos, the educational programme which has been running in Argentinean high schools since it was founded in 2001 by the Pope when he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Through Escuela de Vecinos, ORT Argentina students and their Protestant, Catholic and Muslim peers identify common concerns and work together to develop solutions.
“We have been involved with Escuela de Vecinos since the beginning,” said Alejandro Ferrari, Principal of ORT Argentina’s Almagro High School. “Students from different social realities are learning to be responsible citizens together; they learn to have empathy, to respect others’ knowledge and to know that in life you are not the owner of all knowledge; that you need to work in a team.”
It has been a natural progression for ORT Argentina to work with the Scholas Occurentes Foundation, which has taken the Escuela de Vecinos model into the international arena with the Interreligious Citizenship Encounter.
“The participation of ORT students is very important,” Mr Ferrari said. “Our students are good representatives of a society that thinks we need to transform the world to make it a better place for everybody. As Janusz Korczak said, ‘It is inadmissible to leave the world in the state in which one found it.’”
His sentiments were echoed by Rosario Ragaglia, one of the ORT Argentina students taking part in the Jerusalem event.
“Sharing moments with people from all over the world who, like me, expect to make a better world makes me eager to travel and enjoy every second,” she said.