I recently participated in an alternative break trip rebuilding homes in Arkansas that were destroyed by a devastating tornado in 2014. The service trip was with Bridges, New York University’s Muslim-Jewish interfaith dialogue group. Against the backdrop of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks in Paris, Jewish and Muslim students worked hand in hand with the Jewish Disaster Response Corps to serve the rural communities surrounding Little Rock. Our week-long trip mainly consisted of rebuilding homes, participating in interfaith dialogue and listening to survivors graciously tell their stories. As the week progressed, we found that our disparate heartbeats coalesced and joined the collective consciousness of this small city in the heart of the Bible Belt. Although the long-term impact that we made on Little Rock might seem marginal, all those who participated in the program were postively shaped by the experience. Stretching the limits of my empathetic capacity has enriched my life. Even more so, observing the kindness of my new Muslim friends- whether they were showing a genuine curiosity to learn about Judaism or simply inflating air mattresses for the group- has made me a better person.
Spending so much time with my fellow Muslim participants has also made me realize the similarities between Judaism and Islam. Observant Jewish students at NYU seek to balance religion and modernity. Every Jewish student has a different level and interpretation of observance- some choose to weave prayers into their daily routine, others don’t. Some girls wear pants, others skirts. Similarly, Muslim students go about their college lives operating within the template of Islam. Both observant Jews and Muslims place modesty on a pedestal, both generally find the bedrock of their collegiate lives to be their respective religious communities. Observing the piety of the Muslim students on the trip was inspiring. The Muslim participants prayed together five times a day, and Islam informed their interactions with the people around them. Although the Muslim participants maintained similar degrees of observance within their small cohort, their outlooks were individuated. Just as Jewish students each calibrate their own distinct degree of observance, Muslim students similarly approach aspects of their religion with an individualized, contemplative lens. The committment of the Muslim students to their faith has enriched my understanding of Islam, and made me realize the sanctity inherent in the shared human experience.
Truth is, traversing the seemingly wide chasm that separates Jewish and Muslim communities can be difficult. Violence in the name of religion has inflicted emotional and physical wounds that cannot be ignored. The alternative to interfaith solidarity- resting on one’s intellectual laurels and operating only within the perimeters of the Jewish world- are tempting. (As they say, ignorance is bliss.) But as I listened to an Imam condemn the attacks in Paris over and over again in his sermon during the Muslim Friday afternoon service, or Jumma, I realized that refusing to seek the common ground between my people and Muslims comes at a price. The notion that we can rely on well-worn edifices of ignorance and misunderstanding is more than a paper fantasy; repairing the world is rendered impossible if we are unwilling to extend the borders of our shared humanity and find ourselves in another. As Jews, we have an obligation to help those around us; as members of the human race- we have a responsibility to help heal the world. Actively engaging with those who may seem radically different from us means crossing over the intimidating boundary that separates ignorance from understanding, inaction from action. But the refusal to do so is giving up not only the opportunity to make new friends, but also to help make the world a better place.
I realize that urging Jews to extend the borders of understanding and love to include Muslims in the name of a shared humanity can seem like nothing more than the naive musings of an overly-optimistic college student. But interfaith dialogue, empathy and solidarity have helped rebuild Little Rock, Arkansas. Our recovery work might seem small, and it’s easy to say that our small Bridges group was nothing more than an isolated example of peaceful, mutually beneficial Muslim-Jewish interaction. Nevertheless, I believe that we made a difference. Our trip both helped Little Rock recover, and also served as a model of interfaith dialogue and empathy. Seeking to understand the “other”-whether by attending a Jumma service or reaching out to your Muslim neighbor-does not mean ignoring the past or present. It means having the courage to risk imagining a better future, one of mutual understanding, friendship and solidarity.