Among the very few Hebrew teachers in the UK is one remarkable young man teaching Jewish youngsters at a Wimbledon cheder.
Zain Hussain, 22, is studying for a masters in international politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies having earlier completed an undergraduate degree in Arabic and Hebrew, during which he spent half a year in Jerusalem and half a year in Jordan.
Softly spoken, well-educated and interested in other cultures and religions aside from his own Muslim faith, Zain has now found himself teaching Hebrew to Jewish youngsters in the Wimbledon and District Synagogue on Sunday mornings. How on earth did that come about? “I needed money,” he says, giggling. “A year abroad drains your bank balance! I knew the headteacher there so asked about part-time jobs. I went for the interview and got it. Lucky for me, there aren’t too many Hebrew teachers about!”
Zain teaches two classes – one aged 8-9, the other aged 11-12 – but says no one knew he was Muslim “for a long while”.
So, how did he ‘come out’?
“I just told the older class ‘I’m Muslim.’ It came out in conversation, mind. I didn’t just decide to announce it one day.” He giggles. He giggles a lot. I imagine he’d be amazing with kids. So, how did they react?
“They were shocked. Some of them thought it was really funny and strange.” He laughs again, infectiously. “They asked understandable questions, like: ‘If you’re a Muslim, why are you here?’ But most didn’t find it negative, I don’t think. It was just… it was interesting. It wasn’t a problem. I don’t think anyone had any issues.”
He continues: “It starts as ‘just a job,’ but I’ve grown into it. Me and my friend, who’s also a Hebrew teacher, we held an assembly recently. It was about identity and being a minority – because as Muslims and Jews we’re minorities.”
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He asked the youngsters “which of you is the only Jewish person in the class? A lot talked about negative instances, anti-Semitism against them. I told them about Islamophobia, things that had happened to me and my family. They found it very interesting. We could advise them how to deal with situations. I just think conversations like that make students more interested”.
He’s obviously got his teeth into it – last year he organised the first interfaith exchange between his mosque, Minhaj ul Quran in Forest Gate, and the Cheder. It went well, he says, but this year’s will be better. Aged 22, he’s in a hurry.
“The first Sunday they came from the cheder to the mosque. Both sets of students were about bar mitzvah age. They learnt a bit about Islam and discussed different Islamic themes such as peace and acceptance. The Jewish students gave a lot of their own input in terms of their religion and culture, so did the adults. Then we ate.
“The next Sunday students came from the mosque to the cheder. The rabbi spoke about the fundamentals of Judaism. The Muslim kids got to see some Torah scrolls. Then we had a workshop on Hebrew and Arabic calligraphy, how they share a history, and the students got to practice writing Arabic and Hebrew. Then we ate.”
Overall the students enjoyed it, he says, but next time he wants to pack more into the day and “centre it on how, as Muslims and Jews, we can make society a better place, not just the theology aspect of it. The two religions have many similarities”.