On November 14, the sixth-grade class of Rockwern shyly introduced themselves to their pen pals from Pleasant Hill Academy, a Cincinnati public school. It was a meeting between two groups of children who, given the differences between their schools and backgrounds, might never have met.
Pleasant Hill Academy and Rockwern Academy are very different schools: one a public school with an entirely African-American student body, the other an entirely Jewish private school.
Over the past months, the students from Pleasant Hill have been exchanging letters with their Rockwern counterparts to talk about their differing schools, cultural and social lives and their shared interests — including their all-school readings of a single book, Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters, by President Barack Obama.
“Rockwern’s All-School-Read and Pen Pal programs began last year when we joined together with the International Academy to bring Jewish and Muslim kids together,” said Rockwern librarian Julia Weinstein, who, with Rockwern teacher Elaine Kaplan and Pleasant Hill Resource Coordinator, Paula Sherman organized the visit. “The success of that program led to this one.”
The Pleasant Hill students began their Rockwern visit with a tour of the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education in the Rockwern campus. Then the students met in Rockwern’s Mayerson Hall to greet their pen pals for the first time under a huge banner reading “Welcome Pleasant Hill Academy”—and the children took it from there.
Groups of Rockwern students lead the Pleasant Hill students on a school tour, popping into the library, then Hebrew, music, and art classrooms before arriving at the school’s Boymel Synagogue, where Rockwern Judaic Studies teacher, Dr. Netanel explained a Torah scroll. Hajsani, a Pleasant Hill student, observed, “Hebrew looks kind of like Arabic,” and Dr. Netanel explained that both were Semitic languages.
Then it was off to the gym for a quick introduction to one of Rockwern’s recess favorites, the Israeli game of “Ga-Ga.” The result was uproar as 60 children slapped and dodged two balls. After a spectacular between-the-legs dodge by Pleasant Hill student Jamel, he said, “Man, I’ve got to take a break. This is a fast game!”
Then students sat together for lunch at the school cafeteria, where the children compared notes on what really mattered: music, sports and celebrities. At one table, Rockwern student Emma explained what kosher food was. At another table, Rockwern student Jacob and Mettyas of Pleasant Hill dashed to get seconds on chocolate milk before the Pleasant Hill students had to say goodbye and board the bus back to school.
Next February, the Rockwern sixth grade class will pay a visit to Pleasant Hill Academy, located near College Hill. As Pleasant Hill teacher Brenda Terrell said after the visit, “Kids don’t care much about differences. They care about what they have in common. They could give us grown-ups a lesson about tolerance and friendship.