The Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) Grade 6 students couldn’t contain their excitement, June 16, when the doors of the Charles H. Hulse Public School gym opened.
Inside the gym, Grade 6 students from Hulse – most of whom are Muslim – were waiting to greet their guests for the two schools’ 12th annual Day of Cultural Understanding.
The students had been exchanging letters all year and now finally had the opportunity to meet their pen pals in person and engage in a full day of activities together.
“We’re planting the seeds of tolerance,” said Patrick Mascoe, the Hulse teacher who created the program and continues to spearhead it each year.
Mascoe said he was inspired to create the program so students would learn about the importance of judging people based on their character and not by race or religion.
“It all starts with education,” he said. “It’s really easy to hate someone you don’t know.” But not when you meet someone and get to know them.
The day began with a scavenger hunt and was followed by team-building exercises using word games and physical activity.
OJCS teacher Linda Signer was beaming with pride as she watched her students happily interact with the Hulse kids.
“The program is absolutely wonderful. My kids were super excited to meet their pen pals, and I’ve had a lot of kids come up to me and tell me what they’ve learned today. It’s just wonderful,” she said.
Sophia Mirzayee, a former Hulse student who participated in the program when she was in Grade 6 and is now studying human rights at Carleton University, returns each year to volunteer during the Day of Cultural understanding. She said she still keeps in touch with her OJCS pen pal and said the program has a lasting and positive impact.
The second half of the day was dedicated to Holocaust education. The students watched the film “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas,” a drama in which the Holocaust is seen through the eyes of two young boys: one a Jewish inmate of a Nazi death camp, the other the son of the camp commandant. Mascoe then led a discussion about the film and what the students learned from it.
“Hatred is a disease that can spread really easily if you let it,” he said. “In your life, you’re going to see people being bullied, so my questions are ‘What are you going to do about it? Will you take a stand against hatred?’”
“Hatred isn’t something in the past, it’s all around you. And you can either choose to be a part of it or you can choose to judge someone based on who they actually are,” Mirzayee added.
At the end of the day, the kids enjoyed popsicles, exchanged contact information and hugged their pen pals.