Artfully Teaching Tolerance, By Donna Yates

Posted on February 23rd, 2009 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit

The Flavors of Ramadan and Hanukah
Latkes are potatoish pancakes of steamy, crispy goodness 
that we eat at Hanukah.
Biryani is a ricey dish with carrots, orange, tomatoes red,
And cinnamon sticks brown.
And we eat it at Ramadan.
Gelt is a thing that you win at a dreidel game, chocolate
goodness, hard and coin formed that we eat at Hanukah.
Samosas are spicy, crunchy, and come in many
shapes that we eat at Ramadan
Sufganyot are doughy, jellyfish things that stick to our
fingers at Hanukah.
And dates are the soft, wrinkled, dry and lumpy oversized
grapes that are good even though it does not sound like it,
that we eat at Ramadan.

Though hardly your typical holiday-themed poem, “The Flavors of Ramadan and Hanukah” was proudly composed by a group of forth and fifth graders participating from the Muslim Community Center Fulltime School in Morton Grove, Illinois and Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Jewish Day School in Chicago in March 2008. It demonstrates the value of Poetry Pals ( as a new program designed to engage elementary school students in interfaith dialogue. 

Poetry Pals was founded in Chicago in August 2007 by a group of dedicated volunteers, mostly retired teachers, social workers and Jewish communal professionals. Its aim was to fill the void in interfaith programming for elementary school students. By interacting through art, poetry, and games, participants learn much they have in common and discount stereotypes they may be exposed to from the media, in their community or even in their homes. Moreover, the opportunity for students to share their stories and traditions gives them a greater sense of pride in their identities and religions.  

Key to Poetry Pals’s operation are its poet-educators. These program facilitators come from diverse faith traditions and cultural and ethnic backgrounds and feel passionately about the project. Some are musicians or poets; others professional educators. These facilitators are trained to work in small groups for 60 minutes at a time, reading poetry, demonstrating techniques and guiding the students as they write and dialogue in an open, safe, and non-judgmental environment. They pair students up to write poems together or provide inspiration for students who prefer to write poems on their own. 

Interfaith groups of students generally meet a minimum of three times; the more participants meet, the deeper topics can be explored and relationships developed. At the Muslim Community Center Fulltime School and Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Jewish Day School, for example, students not only wrote poems about themselves, their families, their holidays and traditions, but also played interactive games and produced two wall hangings, one for each school and shared a meal together. After their first meeting, the students had many questions for each other. Little to anyone’s surprise, food was a major topic. What are traditional Jewish foods and whyWhat do you eat on your Muslim holidays? Where is the most holy place for Jewish people? How many letters are in your alphabet? Do you pray a lot? We have a mezuzah on our door. Do you have special things in your home?  What are the head coverings called? Do only girls cover their head? Why? The second meeting gave the group’s facilitators the chance to discuss the questions in a small group format.

Apart from these two sessions session, the students collaborated on a community service project to collect food for a local shelter. Combining their volunteer work with study, they discussed issues of hunger in our community and around the world, made placemats for the shelter and wrote poems that focused on the shared tradition of caring for others - Tzadekah and Zakat. 

In their time together, the Muslim and Jewish students demonstrated their eagerness to become friends with people from other backgrounds. Here are some of the poems that highlight the degree to which they came together out of the common joy for art, community service, and the written word:

Sounds in Our Kitchens

Moms in the kitchen
Sisters in the bath
Dads at work,
But it’s almost time to laugh.
Gather around the table
We’re having a good time.
We’re talking together, because
Our moms love to cook.
Sounds like mixing eggs and baking,
washing dishes and making dinner.
Even though we are different, we all come together
In the kitchen.
By: Madina and Haley


I am a thunderstorm
Wet, soggy
Blurry and fresh

I remind people of spring
I am scared of the sun,
I want people to stay inside and have no fun.

I don’t like umbrellas
So people can go outside and take a shower.
Animals don’t like me because I’m
Wet, yet, I have no fret.

I laugh at the crying grass when it’s so wet
My only friend is lightning, and
That the sun is so frightening.

By: Medina, Ilyssa, Raihan, and Sameer

About the Author: Donna Yates is one of Poetry Pals’ proud organizers and hails from Chicago Illinois. 

One Response to “Artfully Teaching Tolerance, By Donna Yates”

  1. Nuha Rifai says:

    I like the idea and the many similarity we share in both faiths. Would like to get this program at our school in Indiana. how can I do that?