In addition to teaching core subjects, Jewish day schools are often heralded for ingraining students with a strong sense of Jewish values and ethics.
They are far less often touted for pushing the envelope on race relations.
But since its founding in 2001, the Robert Saligman Middle School — the junior high affiliate of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School — has encouraged students to engage in a service-oriented partnership with peers from Al-Aqsa Islamic Academy, an Arab school in Philadelphia.
Through the collaboration, Muslim and Jewish teens have gotten to know each other while participating in various community-service projects: repainting classrooms at Martin Luther King High School, collecting canned goods for food drives and helping to sew blankets for a family shelter, among others.
The project earned accolades from City Hall, when Philadelphia Mayor John Street presented the schools with this year's King Day of Service Harris Wofford Active Citizenship Award. The award, now in its ninth year, pays tribute to an organization that best extols the values — such as citizenship and service — held dear by the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
According to Barbra Berley-Mellits, who volunteers at Saligman to coordinate the King Day of Service, the partnership's success is, at least in part, a factor of it's project-oriented approach.
"When you have a common task, it's very easy and comfortable" to initiate a relationship, she said. "The conversations are more like, 'Mix the cookie batter. Who has the peanut butter? Pass the can of paint.' It's kids being kids."
But that doesn't exclude students from exploring the deeper political, cultural and religious issues that so often pit their two faiths against one another.
School principal Susan Friedman said that every get-together includes a dialogue component, with facilitators stressing commonalities between the faiths — such as daily prayer rituals and dietary laws — and other times addressing differences. On this service day, students participated in a conflict-resolution session on Israeli-Palestinian relations.
As Friedman put it, "in areas where we are different, education breeds understanding. That's where tolerance and understanding blossom."
She added that Jewish values are really the cornerstone of Saligman's involvement with Al-Aqsa: "We feel that part of being a Jew is making the world a better place in any way we can."
Berley-Mellits agreed. "The notion of responsibility to tikkun olam is so essential to Jewish values, and it's echoed in the King legacy," she said. "Getting involved in a project like this is the most authentic context for kids to have real-life applications of those values."