At Rufus King, Wisconsin is united in love

MILWAUKEE –  At Rufus King International High School, Jewish students, Muslim students and others are working together for mutual understanding. They do so through a school club called Wisconsin United in Love.

It’s a club that would be a good model for other schools, according to Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Hours Against Hate program coordinator, Andrea Bernstein. She’s been present as an observer.

Fardowso Shidad, 16, a junior, is president of Friends of Islam, a club at Rufus King International High School.

“What’s so powerful about what Wisconsin United in Love does is that they are able to create a positive energy,” Bernstein said. “There’s such a warmth that you can see the students feeling, being together.”

Specifically, the students have hosted guest speakers, including a talk by a settler and a Palestinian – arranged by the Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council.

Also, students march together behind a Wisconsin United In Love banner for Homecoming. And droves of non-Jewish students have joined the handful of Jewish students here in the Rufus King sukkah.

And when students in Baraboo were photographed making a Nazi salute, Wisconsin United in Love got together for a photo that went viral. The photo has students and faculty forming heart and peace signs with their hands.

English teacher Kelly O’Keefe-Boettcher is a big part of the magic here, according to Bernstein. In addition to Wisconsin United in Love, O’Keefe-Boettcher advises the Jew Crew and Friends of Islam clubs. All the clubs are open to all students of any faith, or no faith, and Jew Crew does attract both Jews and non-Jewish allies.

Fardowso Shidad, 16, a junior, is president of Friends of Islam. She said she chose Rufus King because it had Wisconsin United in Love – she didn’t see any other interfaith clubs at a choice fair for public school students. Shidad is part of a Somali refugee family.

English teacher Kelly O’Keefe-Boettcher collected ideas from students after school, on Sept. 25, 2019, on what the Wisconsin United in Love banner should look like for Homecoming.

“Growing up, I was always aware that people don’t know much about my religion,” she said. “But I really can’t be mad.”

That’s because she doesn’t know much about other religions, either, she said. So she’s decided to educate herself. She learned a lot at the settler-and-Palestinian talk. One year, when she found out homecoming was on Yom Kippur, she recalls, “I was furious.”

Muslim students and others then symbolically marched in the parade that year for their Jewish friends.

On Sept. 25, 2019, students were gathered in O’Keefe-Boettcher’s classroom to create another interfaith banner for another homecoming. They talked with O’Keefe-Boettcher about what it should look like, then took the project out to the hallway.

The Wisconsin United in Love banner this year had Hebrew, Arabic and English on it, including the phrase, “Unity is Sweet.”

Many of the students who participate with the Wisconsin United in Love club are neither Muslim nor Jewish, like banner artist Ellianna Lollis, 15, who said she “came out today because my friends are doing it and I think it’s cool.” She was glad to feel welcome: “I like to support my Jewish friends and I just didn’t know how much of a place here that I would have.”

“I just have a lot of friends that are of the Muslim faith,” said another banner artist, Nina Starks, 16, a junior. “I’ve never been part of Jew Crew or Friends of Islam. I just really want to take a stand against all that’s going on in our world today.”

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