About six years ago, seventh-grade teacher Rebecca Berger posed a question to her class at the Sinai Akiba Academy in West Los Angeles. One student's response chilled her.
"I asked, 'What do you know about Islam?' "said Berger, who teaches Judaic Studies at the private school. "The kids said all kinds of things: That they pray in a mosque, they read the Quran. And then I had a student blurt out: 'They are terrorists.'
Berger says, her heart dropped.
"Like, what do I do? How do I respond to this? That was the moment I realized that I could teach about Islam all I wanted, but I really needed the kids to have one-on-one interaction with other kids," she said.
She decided to create an exchange program between her school and private Muslim school in the area, the New Horizon School in Pasadena. For five years, students from New Horizon have spent a day at Sinai Akiba; then on a different day, students from Sinai Akiba visit New Horizon.
On Wednesday, middle schoolers from the Muslim school toured the Jewish school with peers, shared a prayer service, made art together, and learned about the common threads between them.
"I learned a lot about how we are so connected in a lot of stuff," said Mena Hussen, 13, an eighth-grader from New Horizon. "Like, we say 'salam' and they say 'shalom.' And it means kind of the same thing."
Organizers say this year's event is especially poignant in the wake of recent terror attacks, and anti-Muslim political rhetoric has made things worse lately – so they hope to take this moment in time and turn it into a teachable one.
"Definitely by the age of middle school, they have stereotypes, because it's all around us," Berger said. "It's very hard not to take on stereotypes that we see and hear all the time in the media."
For New Horizon students, it's also an opportunity to feel accepted. Some students and their families have become fearful in this political climate, said New Horizon teacher Aysha Mehdi.
"I have seen my kids, the more they hear about what Islam is in the media, they more they become shy and introverted," Mehdi said. "And they start to feel like they don't have any support in the community. So what I'm hoping to accomplish...is for them to see that they have a lot of friends."
On Wednesday, after a late-morning prayer service, students gabbed and giggled with new friends as they headed to recess. Some said they'd already learned lots, not just about Jewish and Muslim traditions, but about how similar they all are as kids.
"I think that this can help shape a better future," said Josh West, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Sinai Akiba who said he was looking forward to visiting New Horizon next month.
Berger hopes the lessons stick. She thinks they will. Some kids from previous years have stayed in touch.
"I hope that later in life, when they go to college or when they're adults, and they start to hear stereotypes about other groups, that they'll remember, 'I had this buddy once who was really cool, and he or she wasn't like that,'" Berger said. "I want them to see the human aspect."