It began with smiles.
The internet beamed with a photograph of strangers capturing togetherness. At O’Hare Airport in Chicago, a Muslim father-daughter duo shared a frame with a Jewish father-son duo, and a new era of religious-minority cooperation in the United States commenced.
Cooperation between our two communities, however, must go beyond isolated calls for unity and solidarity if we are to navigate the coming years stronger together: only a deeper, sustained sense of shared humanity can extinguish the embers of corrosive separation.
With great blessings, an unofficial collection of students, including the authors, have worked to develop a Muslim-Jewish alliance on Harvard’s campus. Our central goal has been to forge lasting bonds between these two communities and between individuals within them. Over two semesters, we learned firsthand that interfaith interactions cultivate friendship and palpable support across tradition backgrounds.
Sahar Omar ’20 is a member of the Harvard Islamic Society. She describes how this interfaith alliance fosters deep bonds. “They’re names with faces now, people on the street you smile at—they are your friends who are supporting you,” says Omar of Jewish students she has gotten to know. “[The alliance has] moved on from being ‘I’m going to represent the Muslim side of community.’ The alliance has become a friendship in my eyes.”
Last October, a group of 10 Muslims and Jews broke bread and discussed the religions’ high holiday practices and experiences under a Sukkah–– a temporary hut constructed for Sukkot, a Jewish festival commemorating God’s sheltering of the Jews in the desert for 40 years. Our conversations translated into friendships, and these friendships laid the foundations for the campus alliance we sought to establish. Over brunch some weeks after, our organizing group decided to name the alliance after the event’s title: Sukkat Salaam, literally the canopy of peace.
We established this alliance in a political period rife with hostility toward minority populations, religious ones included. In response to this, we set out to build a sense of inclusion and unity between Muslims and Jews. Ilan Goldberg ’20, a member of Hillel, said, “[I’m involved in the alliance] because I have a lot of friends who are Muslim and I know they are going through difficult times in the U.S.”
Days after the U.S. presidential election, members of the Jewish community attended Jummah, a congregational prayer service Muslims hold every Friday. Muslim students responded in kind and attended Shabbat dinner at Hillel. We emphatically exchanged sentiments of deep care and together denounced hatred.
In a period of acrimony and finger-pointing, expressions of support across religious lines can be unexpected and valuable.
“There was a whole lot of warmth and unexpected support [from the Jewish community], especially with regard to political turmoil,” Omar reported. “Having a Jewish contingency at Jumah prayer [after the election] meant a lot to us, and it came from this group that people would not have expected.”
This feeling of gratitude was not limited to Omar. For Amanda Jowell ’17 a former member of Hillel, the evening “was one of the best Shabbat dinners” she experienced at Harvard. “It was so beautiful that we shared this moment together because for me that’s what college (and being American) should be all about.”
An ask-all session about Judaism and Islam with Imam Taymullah Abdulrahman and Rabbi Dani Passow fostered inter-religious learning. A petition from the Jewish community opposing the executive-order travel ban garnered 220 signatories. Hillel partnered with the Harvard Islamic Society to host a “Combating Islamophobia” teach-in: Muslim students shared personal experiences of being targeted by Islamophobia, and Jewish community members spoke of a “moral conscription” to stand up against anti-Muslim bigotry.
Interpersonal relationships helped strengthen the growing alliance. Shireen Younus ’20, a member of both the alliance’s unofficial leadership team and of the Harvard Islamic Society, recalls the crucial role friendships within and across faith backgrounds played in this year’s interfaith events. “My friends are the people I reached out to [come to the alliance’s events]. People who otherwise would not get involved will come because they have someone there. It’s a positive thing sometimes when you take a leap for someone and it ends up being a great experience,” Younus said, adding that she joined the alliance because a friend brought her along to Sukkat Salaam.
Everything we experienced during this past year—the teachings, the friendships, the displays of solidarity—etched the sheer beauty and power of interfaith in our hearts.
Strategies for the alliance
Having experienced this beauty and power on several occasions, we contemplated the possibility of a nationwide Muslim-Jewish interfaith alliance. There are several points that would be essential to building this alliance.
First and foremost, to jumpstart interfaith community building, synagogues and mosques, as well as other Jewish and Muslim community centers, can invite members of the other faith to learn about each other’s prayer services. Interfaith engagement works best in the form of iterated interaction.
“If we want to create an alliance the way to do things is to create continuity, to create established traditions. If you make something a tradition like that it sticks there,” Theo Motzkin ’19, Hillel vice president of community relations said. Therefore, we suggest that communities host educational series for members of the other faith. Learning the basics would enable Jews and Muslims to talk more openly about personal experiences regarding religious traditions and philosophies.
Additionally, as members of both communities get to know one another, organizing community-wide gatherings corresponding to religious holidays would allow Muslims and Jews to celebrate their sacred togetherness. It would also signal to our fellow Americans the presence and strength of a growing nationwide Muslim-Jewish alliance.
There is significant value in consistently engaging with other religions in this way. Extending warm invitations to those of all religions will demonstrate the possibility of bridging differences with engagement and kind-heartedness.
Interfaith on campus
A Muslim-Jewish Passover Seder convinced us of this most inspiring insight. Experiencing the tradition and richness during Passover brought us an enlivening opportunity to build interfaith community, and has since crystallized our response to the “Why interfaith?” question.
The Seder is a rituals-based retelling of the Exodus story that takes place at the beginning of Passover. For millennia, it has stood as a cultural, spiritual, and communal tradition for Jewish people around the world, and it remains a powerful source of Jewish identity today. But the Seder and the Exodus story convey universal themes through a journey from bondage to freedom—topics that participants of the Muslim-Jewish Seder were eager to engage with, regardless of faith.
Preparing for the night, this time markedly different from other Passover nights, one of us wrote up a prompt to spark discussion. The intro was standard: “The story of Passover is one of exodus. It’s generally regarded as a communal retelling of a distinguished transition from slavery to freedom.”
The intro continued, “But an exodus is more than a journey that carries on from a downtrodden point A to an uplifting point B. Exodus is a transcendent experience that reconditions its participating actors into agents of positive transformation for all of humanity.”
At a time in which differences are increasingly represented as unsettling or treacherous, these words, with their unifying power, felt right. The Passover story, in which the Israelites fled slavery and thereafter became a free nation, inspired us to reach for and connect to something universal.
Though Passover is a Jewish holiday, the symbol of Exodus—a liberation of humanity manifested in the unity of a people—was something we, as Jews and Muslims, could all connect with together. The words “all of humanity,” were breathed into existence the night Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters sat together in bond. That evening illustrated the Seder’s enduring power: its impetus to simultaneously forge a strong sense of identity but also togetherness.
Rabbi Passow, the Seder’s host, and Basil Baccouche ’20 met up the next week, discussing the goal of “making the alliance tangible” for over two hours. The idea of a prayer service struck them both.
“We talked about an interfaith prayer event, side by side prayer, in own prayer methods, in a way that glorified God,” Baccouche told the HPR, suggesting the event should be public, perhaps next to Widener Library steps, and open for all to participate.
Interfaith, the dialogue between religious expressions, always leaves more to be unearthed. Friendships bloom and ongoing conversations reconnect us to our own religious endeavors. We are motivated to emulate divine compassion and strive for global harmony.
A five-hour procession of religious rituals, storytelling, and commentary brought two peoples together for a night dedicated to spiritual and personal renewal. In this spirit we left, committing ourselves to further understand and embrace the commonalities and distinctions we had encountered.
Image Credit: Ryan Hyde, Flickr