“The Jewish obligation to share what we have is called ‘tzedaka,‘” I told the class. “Does that sound familiar to any of you?” I posed this question to a World Religions class at a suburban Minneapolis high school last week.
About half the students in the class were Somali. Every Somali student nodded. ‘We are required to help the poor,” one girl explained.
I continued, ‘That Muslim pillar of faith is called ‘zakat,‘ right? Do the words ‘zakat‘ and ‘tzedaka‘ sound similar to you?” More nods, more smiles.
I went on to explain Jewish dietary laws, Sabbath observance, blessings, and more. The Somali students spotted every similarity between our faiths. Their faces registered delight when I began the Jewish story by telling the story of Abraham. On the screen behind me, an ancient family tree that included both Isaac and Ishmael. A tree whose descendants include Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Minnesota is now home to the largest Somali population in the United States. I encounter Somali students (and non-Somali Muslims) at nearly every school where I speak. Because these students are being raised in a faith, they are fluent in the language and concepts of faith, often more fluent than many of their non-Muslim classmates. They are eager to engage, to share what they know, to seize upon points of commonality.
Finding those points is a must, because every presentation on Judaism also includes talking about Israel. I speak not only of our history. Not only of our need for a homeland. I share our deep attachment to the land, our millennia of longing.
Many students come to this topic with no opinion, and others come with a wide variety of perspectives. Those perspectives are often in opposition to my own.
That is part of the reason I am there — to make connections, to listen and to be heard. Not always to say or hear the thing that is easy, but the thing that is difficult. When I can do that and make a connection, the experience is even more meaningful.
Back to the World Religions class. I wrapped up the presentation, and answered the students’ terrific questions. Then I had a question for them. As they filed out of class, I asked each student to tell me one new thing he or she learned.
I love this chance to have a tiny conversation with every student! For each person to tell me what mattered most. One by one, each student shared a take-away:
“Now I understand what kosher is.”
“I learned that we share a book — your Torah is our Old Testament.”
“I learned that Jews are a faith and a people.”
Every Somali student expressed amazement over what we have in common.
The last student approached, a Somali girl who had participated the most. Her smile was dazzling, the only bit of radiance on a dreary winter day.
She did not simply share one thing she learned; she shared half a dozen. Then she recited verses from the Koran that call upon Muslims to show respect to Jews, the people who carried the Ten Commandments to humanity.
“You are the first Jew I ever met!” she exclaimed. I clasped her hands and told her what an honor it was for me to be that first Jew. And what a privilege it was for me to meet her.
She continued. “I came to class today feeling down. I’m leaving so happy!”
The teacher, who overheard the whole exchange, was near tears.
That student made my day, week, and month. First, because of this heartwarming exchange in all it’s sheer humanity. To find things we share — a late-middle-aged Jewish woman and a Somali born, Muslim teen — that was a gift. That our paths crossed at all was a blessing.
And there’s this. That girl now has a Jewish story, face and memory to attach to the word “Jew.” It came from a real person whom she met.
I’m not so naive as to think that a single encounter in the classroom will immunize students — Muslim, Christian, any faith, or no faith — against anti-Semitism, or its campus variant, hatred of the Jewish state. But we must begin somewhere to educate those who know little about us. Standing in classrooms, churches, and other settings week after week I can tell you that this is the majority of those I meet.
I just returned from the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC. A memorable take-away was provided by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar in an interview before the audience of 18,000. She offered a bit of her political philosophy, saying, “You can find common ground while still standing your ground.”
That’s wisdom we can apply in every classroom and beyond.
Let’s be alive to this moment and it’s possibilities. Let’s share the beauty of what we have in common, yet stand firm when we must.
Let’s tell our stories as only we can.