Franki Bagdade
Educator, Social Worker, Author and Mom of 3

Great Division and Shared Values

Working out my thoughts through writing

In 2001, I was a first-year special education teacher at a private school near my hometown. We had a diverse population of students from various geographic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. I remember the head of school explaining to us that our school was a “school of need” not a “school of choice.”  Parents didn’t put their babies’ names on a wait list before they were born. Alumni adults didn’t dream of sending their children to their alma mater.  Students came to our school because their neighborhood school failed them. They were bright, creative, diverse students who were often three or more years behind in reading due to various learning disabilities.  I felt so honored to help students meet their potential and unlock the code of reading for them and with them.

My colleagues and I watched in horror as the airplanes struck the Twin Towers in New York City on 9/11/2001.  We went home that evening and continued to watch the news on an endless loop displaying tragedy and loss.

We talked in hushed and horrified tones about the Islamaphobia that emerged from the darkness almost immediately in our country.  I felt a kinship with my Arab Christian and Muslim neighbors. I too knew what it was like to be misunderstood and discriminated against because of my religion as I am a Jew.

My teaching team and I decided that in December we would invite families in to share their holiday traditions. We felt that this would be a way to honor and celebrate our diversity.  We weren’t endorsing one religion over the other we were celebrating our eclectic mix of traditions.  That year our small lower school population didn’t have any Muslim families. We felt that it was more important than ever to expose our students to Muslim traditions and culture.  I immediately volunteered to reach out to a local mosque and they graciously invited us for a field trip.

The field trip was transformative for me as much as my students. I was well aware of the historical tensions, violence, and catastrophic misunderstandings between the Jewish, Muslim, and Arab communities.  However, I had never visited a mosque. Two young adults from the mosque’s congregation taught our students how to write their names in Arabic and they made bookmarks, I made one too. It reminded me of when I was a young student clumsily trying to form Hebrew letters when I could hardly form English ones!

The part of our field trip that  I remember the most is how open and patient these young women were when answering questions about traditions, their modest clothing, and covering their hair.  If I closed my eyes it could have been me asking these same questions of my Orthodox Jewish teachers in Jewish day school.  I always knew we had some similar traditions, yet I was blown away by how closely aligned our core values are.

Profession of Faith (shahada). The belief that “There is no god but God.”

The Shma considered in Judaism to be “the watchword of our faith” that we say every morning and night and throughout our daily prayers is translated as:

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our G‑d, the Lord is One.”

Prayer (salat). Muslims pray facing Mecca five times a day: at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and after dark.

In Judaism we pray three times a day: morning, afternoon, and evening facing Jerusalem. 

Alms (zakat). In accordance with Islamic law, Muslims donate a fixed portion of their income to community members in need.

The Torah legislated that Jews give 10 percent of their earnings to the poor every third year (Deuteronomy 26:12), and an additional percentage of their income annually (Leviticus 19:9-10). 

Fasting (sawm), Ramadan

Judaism has six fast days every year. 

Pilgrimage (hajj). Every Muslim whose health and finances permit it must make at least one visit to the holy city of Mecca, in present-day Saudi Arabia

While there is no formal commandment to visit Israel, Jewish organizations and philanthropists create endless opportunities and financial aid so that all Jews can have the experience of visiting Israel. 

And the similarities don’t end there.  There was a joke in my community that every Jewish teen was cousins with every other Jewish teen. We play Jewish geography for a sport. I’ve often talked to my Chaldean, Christian Arab, neighbors as they joke about the same phenomenon in their culture.  Our celebrations revolve around tradition, prayer, and food- except when there is no food see fasting above!

So why are we entangled in centuries of hate and violence? I know there are historians who could answer this, but my question is less about history and facts and more existential. What has it given us except heartache and loss?

In 2004 I got married and my last name officially changed to Bagdade.  My husband has spent countless hours researching the origins of his family and our unusual American Jewish last name. He believes that his ancestors were Mizrahi Jews.

I am a Jewish Woman in America with strong Eastern European genes (meaning pale skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes)  therefore no one has ever assumed or guessed that I was Jewish.  Add a very ethnic, Arab-sounding last name and an Italian first name “Francesca” or my nickname “Franki” and no one knows quite what to make of me. A true real-life example of where “ethnic profiling” and assumptions don’t work.

About ten years ago I went to a new doctor, a specialist and extremely well respected physician. He was also an Arab man. He asked me about my family’s origin and my last name. We chatted for a long time over our shared history and ancestral roots.  Then he looked at me and paused. I knew the essence of what he was going to say before he said it: “You and I, we are the same. Our families have both been through so much persecution. Our traditions and values are so closely aligned. I never understood why we didn’t all get along.”  All I could do was nod along in agreement.

I have thought about that interaction often.  I thought about it every time a new conflict started in Israel and the media began distorting both of our stories.  I thought about it every time someone in my life was a victim of anti-Semitism.  I thought about it when a speaker at my daughter’s school was included in a diversity assembly to talk about her personal experience with discrimination and islamophobia.  She instead used the platform to talk about her anger towards Israel. Ok, not the place or time, yet the criticism of Israel’s government didn’t bother me so much. I criticize my own government often.  Governments need to be questioned, pushed, and criticized. What upset me was when she continually interchanged Israel and Jews. My child and my community were terrified and appalled that the student body would leave with the notion that Jews were inherently evil monsters, not a better understanding of the tragedy of war and what it is like growing up being discriminated against because of your religion and ethnicity.

I live in a community with one of the largest Arab populations in the United States and one of the largest Jewish populations in the United States. It’s not surprising when you look up above and see all of our shared values that both of our communities have sacrificed and worked hard to send our kids to one of the strongest school districts in our nation.

I see women out about in my community in hijabs. I want to put my hand on their shoulder and ask how they are holding up. I know they are hurting because I am hurting so deeply too. That simple, human interaction seems so out of reach today. I want to tell her that I am a Mom too, that I am scared for the future of my kids, and that I am also exhausted and heartbroken from centuries of hate.

About the Author
Franki Bagdade owns and operates FAAB Consulting, which offers training for professionals in education, camping, and mental health fields as well as ADHD coaching. In addition, Franki is a clinical social worker with a solo private practice specializing in ADHD, Autism, Anxiety,l, and Parenting Support. Franki’s first book, “I Love My Kids But I Don’t Always Like Them,” was published in October of 2021 and has won several awards. Franki has written several articles for publications such as Metro Parent (Metro Detroit), Chicago Parent, American Camping Association-Camping Magazine, Autism Parent Magazine (UK), Respectability-NYC, The Time Timer blog, and more. Franki received a BA in Elementary Education from Michigan State University, a M. Ed. in Special Education from Wayne State University, and a MSW in Clinical Social Work from the University of Kentucky. Franki’s mission through her two businesses and writing is to advocate for disability inclusion and remove barriers to mental health support and services.
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