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Landmark HSC study day brings Catholic-Jewish dialogue alive

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Jonathan Kaplan leads a session at the Jewish Musuem. Photo: Supplied
Jonathan Kaplan leads a session at the Jewish Musuem. Photo: Supplied

In a landmark step forward for Catholic-Jewish relations, a group of Jewish educators in Sydney have led over 150 HSC students from 19 Sydney Catholic Schools undertaking their Studies of Religion course on a dedicated study day at Sydney’s Jewish Museum to help them prepare for their upcoming exams.

Alongside 29 teachers from Sydney Catholic Schools, the students gave up a full day of their winter holidays on 12 July to visit the museum.

From Jewish marriage customs and customs around death and mourning, through to sexual ethics and the works of leading Jewish philosophers, the students learned from three Jewish teachers, who provided the students with deep insights into topics covered in the HSC.

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The coordinator of the HSC Study Day, Network K-12 Religious Education Officer (Secondary Focus) in the Mission and Identity Directorate at Sydney Catholic Schools, Cathy Brown, said the students and teachers benefited greatly from the authentic input of the Jewish teachers.

“This was very special because it involved three adherents of the Jewish faith, three very educated people and three teachers who know the syllabus well too and so it was also a professional learning day for the Catholic school teachers,” Mrs Brown explained.

“We had both teachers and students who had never met an adherent of the Jewish faith and who had never visited the Jewish Museum and so this wasn’t just a day of lecturing by any means: it was a day of real, fraternal friendship.”

The morning and afternoon sessions around key topics in the Studies of Religion syllabus were led by the coordinator of pastoral care at Moriah College, Mandy Meltz, senior educator and manager of research at the Sydney Jewish Museum, Jonathan Kaplan and acting head of education at the Sydney Jewish Museum, Sandy Hollis.

In the afternoon, two Shoah survivors, Yvonne Engelman and Mark Spigelman, shared moving personal testimonies about their remarkable escape from the Nazis during the Second World War.

Mrs Engelman shared how she survived the barbaric Auschwitz concentration camp and successfully applied as an orphan refugee from the former Czechoslovakia, arriving in Sydney in 1948, in turn forging a new life and raising a family in Australia with her husband, who was also an orphan refugee from the horrors of Nazism.

Mr Spigelman shared his remarkable story of surviving the brutality of a ghetto in southern Poland as a young child and later seeking refuge in Australia, going on to forge a distinguished career as a surgeon and medical archaeologist.

The HSC study day is an integral part of the broader work of the Nostre Aetate working party led by the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Commission for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations.

The working party was established after the signing of a landmark agreement in 2015 between Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP; president of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, Jeremy Spinak; chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Relations, Archbishop Christopher Prowse; and the president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Robert Goot, on the 50th anniversary of Nostre Aetate in 2015.

Religious Education Coordinator at Domremy College, Five Dock, Jane Sullivan, said the HSC Study Day on Judaism offered her year 12 students an experience they could never have gained purely from classroom learning.

“It was enriching insofar as the presenters were authentic Jews,” she explained.

“My students had never even spoken to a Jewish adherent and the insights from the range of Jewish adherents were all very well communicated”.

Yasmeen, a year 12 student from Brigidine College in Randwick, said she benefited greatly from the study day.

“The day will not only help my HSC preparation, but more so in my understanding and empathy for those who endured the Holocaust,” she said.

Cathy Brown from Sydney Catholic Schools said it’s hoped that the HSC study day will help inspire many other opportunities to harness the school curriculum as a means of nurturing inter-faith dialogue and understanding.

“In Year 10, we have a wonderful unit on ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue which would similarly allow for an opportunity to visit the Sydney Jewish Museum and we really want to expand this work from year 7 onwards”, she explains.

“We also would like to bring out the Jewish students from schools such as Emanuel School and Moriah College, to visit our Catholic schools and experience what it’s like to be in a Catholic school for a day”.

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