Impact of Ideas

Empathy paradise: Students at a Jewish Day School reflect on Zak Ebrahim’s experience growing up with an extremist Muslim father

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Students at the Davis Academy in Georgia contemplated the differences—and similarities—between Zak Ebrahim’s experience and their own. Photo: Twitter/@sbbEZas123

With Rosh Hashanah fast approaching, Sara Beth Berman of the Davis Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, wanted to create a lesson for the school’s middle school students around the ideas of empathy and forgiveness.

“In the month preceding the Jewish New Year, we talk a lot about how to forgive, how to accept forgiveness, and how do you want to be better in the new year,” says Berman, the experiential educator at this Jewish day school. “I was working on finding something to teach on these topics. And I was coming up short.”

Zak Ebrahim: I am the son of a terrorist. Here's how I chose peace. Zak Ebrahim: I am the son of a terrorist. Here's how I chose peace. But an a-ha moment came when one of her colleagues, Judaic studies teacher Samara Schwartz, forwarded her a TED Talk all about the life-altering things that happen when we dare to have empathy: Zak Ebrahim’s “I am the son of a terrorist. Here’s how I chose peace.”

“I thought, ‘This is amazing,’” says Berman, who quickly jumped into a conversation with Schwartz, the school’s administrators and the school’s counseling team to discuss how to frame it for a lesson. “It’s this amazing person with such a positive message, who is a Muslim and whose father who was an extremist terrorist. I watched it a couple of times, and I knew it was going to be powerful.”

On Friday, September 12—just three days after Zak’s talk was released (and the day after September 11)—about 200 middle school students at the academy took part in a lesson framed around Zak’s talk and the song “Change Your Mind” by Sister Hazel. In the classroom where Berman observed, the students sat at desks arranged in a big U-shape and watched the talk. When Ebrahim revealed that his father is El-Sayyid Nosair, who was convicted of planning the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and who assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane, the leader of the Jewish Defense League, in 1990, the kids audibly gasped.

“They couldn’t believe it,” said Berman. “They said, ‘We didn’t know that you could have a father that’s a bad man and then be so good.’ That’s really an important lesson for us in terms of teaching them how to make their own decisions and grow and be their own people.”

The students in the class also had a big reaction to the part of the talk where Ebrahim describes going to the shooting range with his father and uncles, and the glee that erupted when a target burst into flames. “I’m not sure how many of them could hear this,” says Berman, “but Zak said the Arabic phrase ‘ibn abuh’ — like father, like son. It sounds close to father in Hebrew—‘abba.’”

After watching the talk, the students got up from their seats. Around the classroom, a series of questions were posted for them to consider: How do you feel Zak’s experience growing up was different from yours? How was Zak’s childhood the same as yours? Why was he able to be empathetic? How could you be more open and welcoming to your peers who have struggled like Zak has?

Quietly, the students walked around and wrote down their thoughts on Post-it notes, which they then stuck to the walls. Says Berman, “Many students were like, ‘I ran out of Post-its. Can I have more Post-its?’”

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Students reflect on questions spurred by Zak Ebrahim’s TED Talk. Photo: Twitter/@sbbEZas123

Around the question, “Where do you learn stereotypes, and how can we bust them?” students posted answers like, “We learn stereotypes from the people around us, but we can bust them by doing what we think is right.”

The question, “Zak struggled as the new kid in class who was quiet and chubby. Have you ever felt like Zak?” also prompted some interesting answers. One female student wrote, “My brothers make fun of me for being small all the time. So I get what Zak is saying.”

Berman loved watching the students find common ground with Ebrahim. “There were some realizations that Zak was just like them—which was awesome. That’s all we want from our students: to realize that everybody is a human,” says Berman. “When you’re in middle school, it’s really hard to realize that there are other people around you that also have feelings. These are kids, so they aren’t on the terrorist path, but this reminded them that they also shouldn’t be on the bullying path. That they have choices.”

Overall, Berman calls the lesson “empathy paradise.”

The lesson also served as an important opportunity to talk to the kids about the realities of terrorism and about the importance of religious tolerance. “The majority of the kids were not born yet on September 11, 2001,” says Berman. “We really try to speak with kindness and to be authentic that we’re talking about a specific group of extremist terrorists—that we’re talking about ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah, not Muslim people as a whole.”

Berman and her colleagues work hard to make sure that the students hear from people of many faiths. Last year, the school held a panel that brought together a rabbi, a Baptist preacher, a Presbyterian minister, and an imam, all senior clergy members from around Atlanta. Berman hopes that this talk will further help students be open-minded. “I enjoy finding things to help them have a nuanced understanding of Islam as a religion and Muslim people as a whole,” says Berman.

TED Talks are a popular teaching tool at the Davis Academy for students and teachers alike. And Berman hopes that this talk will have a lasting effect on how students think and act. “We want them to be able to have high-level conversations and to think about becoming a better person in the new year,” she says.

And for Zak Ebrahim, it was incredibly moving to see images of this lesson posted on Twitter. “Beautiful and humbling,” he wrote in response. “This is my dream.”

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An up-close look at some answers to this question. Photo: Twitter/@sbbEZas123

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In this classroom, students answer questions on a chalk board. Photo: Twitter/@rabbispen

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A scene from the end of this lesson. Photo: Twitter/@rabbispen