Can young Jews and young Muslims engage in fruitful dialogue, despite the differences in their religions and in the face of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict?

The answer is yes, as was demonstrated by a wonderful group of young adult Muslims and Jews who spent a week together doing exactly this in Israel last week. I was privileged to spend several hours with them in Jerusalem in open, sincere, honest and respectful dialogue. It was a real treat and a great eye-opener.

HAMSA is a partnership of two American groups and two Israeli groups: the Suffolk Y JCC in Long Island, the French Hill Community Center in Jerusalem, Beit Safafa Community Center in Jerusalem and the Islamic Center of Long Island. According to the website of the Suffolk Y JCC:

It is a program which brings graduating high school seniors and college age students from American and Israeli, Jewish and Muslim backgrounds together in the spirit of goodwill to participate in a series of educational classes, as well as a trip to Israel to complete a community service project together.

This unique project is the brainchild of two dynamic women, one Jewish and one Muslim, who have been doing this together for the past five years. The Jewish woman, Kelly Alpert Vest, who serves as Director of Community and International Relations for the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center, succeeded in getting a grant from New York UJA-Federation to implement this innovative project, probably the only one of its kind in any JCC in North America. And the Muslim woman, Nazli Chaudhry, who serves as Muslim Chaplin at the Interfaith Center of Hofstra University on Long Island, and is the Director of Interfaith Activities for the Suffolk Y JCC (that’s right, you read it correctly – a Muslim woman is directing interfaith activities for a Jewish Community Center!).

These two unique women brought five Muslim and five Jewish university students from the New York area to Israel to meet with five Muslim Israelis and five Jewish Israelis who have been meeting for the last few months in Israel to get to know each other, under the supervision of a Muslim Israeli student and a Jewish Israeli student, both of whom went through this program last year.

They came to the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel’s Education Center one day last week to have a chance to process their first days together in Jerusalem. These included a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, including a visit to each other’s holy places, free time in the Jewish market of Mahaneh Yehuda (in West Jerusalem) and a cooking class together to learn how to make local foods.

We had a lively and enriching discussion together for nearly three hours. Most of the participants were grateful for the opportunity to share their feelings and reflections about their initial experiences in Jerusalem.

For example, when they went to Temple Mount/Harem El-Sharif, the Muslims were invited to pray at the Al Aksa Mosque, while the Jewish students were told that they were not allowed to enter. This surprised the American students – both Jewish and Muslim – since the Jewish students would certainly have been invited to observe Muslim prayers in an American mosque. They all quickly learned that the political / religious / security context of Jerusalem is a much more complex reality.

When they went to the Western Wall later, some of the American Muslims told us that they put a note with a prayer in the Wall, and no one disturbed them. However, some of the Jews in the group – particularly some of the Israeli Jews – said that they felt very uncomfortable at the Wall, which is controlled by the Ultra-Orthodox Religious Jewish establishment in Israel, which does not offer freedom to all Jews to pray there according to their own styles and beliefs.

At the end of our discussion, I asked the students to imagine Jerusalem after a peace treaty is signed. What are their hopes and dreams? What would they like to see in the future?

Some of the Israelis in the room found this exercise too hard. It was too difficult to imagine anything other than the ongoing unresolved conflict.

But one young Israeli Muslim fellow came up with a great idea: he is going to open up a coffee house on the old border in which Palestinians and Israelis will be able to sit and drink coffee and talk about whatever they want in freedom, just as they were doing in this dialogue session. I wished him good luck and told him that I would be one of the first to come to have coffee and conversation in his new coffee house!

Is it possible to imagine a better future for all citizens of Jerusalem – Israelis and Palestinians – Jews, Christians and Muslims? I believe that it is not only possible to do so but essential. We must not be mired in the destructive history of the past decades, not in the despair of the present moment. Rather, it is vital to keep in mind that our political conflict will end one day, as it has ended in South Africa, Northern Ireland and other places. Now is the time to dream and plan and act for a more reasonable, peaceful and secure future for all people in Jerusalem, as well as all of Israel and Palestine.