Gaza tensions lead to closure of inter-faith school program

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
A long-running inter-faith schools program in Melbourne has shut its doors after ongoing tensions around the war in Gaza.

When the Building Bridges school inter-faith program launched in the months following the September 11 terror attacks, its aim was to bring year 10 and 11 students from Christian, Jewish and Muslim schools together for a chat and pizza.

But today, the long-running Melbourne program has closed due to a lack of funding and community tensions over the war in Gaza.

“These kids end up with friendships out of it,” John Rogerson, chairman of the Christian organisation that ran Building Bridges, the WellSpring Centre.

“We had one kid get up and say, ‘I never appreciated that people from other religions would have an AFL team they support’. It tells you what happens when we get out of our own bubbles. And that’s why the meals are so important, to have those conversations.”

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The program facilitated more than 200 students from 19 Christian, Muslim and Jewish schools visiting each other’s campuses to chat about their lives.

Volunteer facilitators – often people who had completed the program themselves as teenage students – would lead small group discussions on a range of philosophical topics, culminating in an end-of-year celebration that also brought their parents and facilitators together to celebrate.

The program closed after some schools pulled out due to ongoing tensions over the war in Gaza.

Both academics and politicians have expressed concerns that antisemitism and Islamophobia are on the rise in Australia, with many Jewish and Muslim leaders no longer keen to engage.

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“It should be in all schools across Australia because we need people to engage with those they see as being different to themselves,” says 25-year-old Natalie Adler, who experienced the Building Bridges program as a student and went on to become program director.

While the program’s closure is unfortunate, she says she understands that asking students to have conversations many adults considered too difficult was a difficult ask in the current environment.

As a former senior chaplain at Melbourne Grammar School – now an assistant bishop in the Perth diocese – Reverend Hans Christiansen says the school participated in the program alongside Jewish independent school Bialik College, Caulfield Grammar and Minaret College and others.

“We need it now more than ever,” he says.

Funding issue fuelled program challenges

WellSpring Centre needed $150,000 a year to train and pay volunteer facilitators and expand to other faiths and schools, with participating schools contributing.

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The Faith Communities Council of Victoria’s multi-faith officer, Sandy Kouroupidis, says government money that once poured into programs supporting inter-faith cohesion in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Bali bombings has since dwindled over the past eight years – a situation that needs to change.

“Issues that are currently going on overseas and the spot fires we’re currently putting out in Australia – it’s not something of the past, it’s something of the present.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]