In a small classroom in the basement of Talmud Torah of St. Paul, high school students gathered Sunday and talked about their religions - Judaism and Islam.
The two religions have been part of a violent struggle in the Middle East, but on Sunday, the dialogue centered not on conflict but on the similarities the young people face growing up in a country where their religious faiths are the minority.
On a simple level, it was a chance for them to just sit face to face and connect with each other through religion, said Rabbi Yosi Gordon, a teacher at Talmud Torah.
"Look at how they are all interacting," Gordon said to Al-Amal School teacher Mohamed El-Tayash.
The group of 26 students was from the George Kaplan Midrasha program at the Talmud Torah, a Jewish school on Hamline Avenue, and from Al-Amal School, a private Islamic school in Fridley.
The relationship between the schools was the vision of Dalia Vlodaver, a retired principal at Talmud Torah, and Salah Ayari, a former principal at Al-Amal. The schools met four times last year, but Sunday's meeting was planned so the Al-Amal students could learn about Hanukkah and its traditions.
"Part of what makes this program a success is its informal nature," El-Tayash said.
El-Tayash said students become stronger in their faiths when they can interact with other students their age.
"It gives you a better understanding of your own religion when you can learn and compare," he said.
Rabbi Julie Gordon is the principal of the George Kaplan Midrasha program, which includes about 50 students who go to high school elsewhere but study Hebrew two nights a week at Talmud Torah and earn credits at the University of Minnesota. She said she is not aware of a similar ongoing dialogue among high school students in the state.
"I'm surprised with how open the students are with each other and how they learn from each other," Gordon said.
After the group discussion, the students spoke about what they learned about their counterparts' religion, including that they both have fasting rituals during the holidays and each other's rules on dress.