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In August 2014, many of us around the country watched news reports pertaining to the brutal and vicious beheading of American James Foley by ISIS. We were stunned and deeply upset. Members of my congregation, Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, N.J., asked what we could do to combat such a terrible event and respond to increasingly grim reports from the Middle East
Upon my arrival at the congregation in July 2013, Melikhan Turklieri from Peace Islands Institute approached me in an effort to build on their relationship with the Jewish community, which, to this point, had been nurtured by our synagogue's Rabbi Emeritus, Rabbi Neal Borovitz, and Joy Kurland, former director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. At the news of ISIS' actions, Mel and I had only begun building an initial relationship.
When I reached out to Mel to express my concerns at what I was seeing in the news, he said, "This isn't Islam. We need to talk."
I responded by saying, "It's more than us. We need our kids to talk. We need our kids to build relationships with one another. They are our future."
That autumn, "Getting to Know You: Muslim-Jewish Dialogue for Teenagers" was born. A group of around 14 teenagers (seven each from our congregation and from the Islamic community) met for six consecutive weeks at Temple Avodat Shalom, culminating in a visit to a local mosque, where parents joined us and participated, as well. Students discussed different rituals and customs, holidays and festivals, history of Islam and Judaism, and enjoyed an opportunity to sample one another's food. During one session, our students bravely attempted to address stereotypes and common misconceptions they had regarding Muslims and Jews. In a world that constantly enforces the message that we should be afraid of one another, our students learned that there is far more to accomplish when we are willing to listen to one another and learn from one another.
The students truly enjoyed the opportunity to get to know one another. On one of our visits at the synagogue, students in the elective, joined by other students who were attending separate electives, met during "break time" and took the Muslim students on a tour of the synagogue, explaining some aspects of our sanctuary. The students also shared food from one another's culture.
At the end of the program, one of the Muslim students said, "I had only heard about Jews before but never had a chance to meet them. What I've learned is very different from what I've heard." One of the Jewish students said, "I've never been in a mosque before and because of this dialogue program, I know that I don't have to be afraid of Muslims. I can speak up and defend Muslims when someone says something that I think is inappropriate."
Following the conclusion of the program, the Muslim and Jewish students traded phone numbers and email addresses. They coordinated an opportunity to go bowling with one another and then participated in a food-packing event at a local church, where they lent their assistance to an effort to prepare food for more than 8,000 Northern New Jersey residents in need. Our students felt comfortable with one another, started building friendships, shared openly, and wanted to continue interacting through social justice programs and simply by having fun – a truly exceptional indication of the program's success. In the past two years, we’ve held additional programs for adults in our congregation related to fostering a stronger connection between the Islamic and Jewish communities.
It was never our intention to submit our program for a Fain Award through the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, but while chaperoning our youth at the RAC’s L'Taken Social Justice Seminar, we were encouraged to participate in the process. We were, of course, honored to be selected for our efforts, but none of this has to do with recognition. Ultimately, we decided to submit our program for a Fain Award because we felt that, with the assistance of the RAC, we would have a greater opportunity to promote dialogues program like this one and encourage stronger relationship-building in both of our communities.
We encounter a world with increasing acts of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. If somehow, we can just learn to speak to one another, to appreciate our similarities, better understand our differences, and figure out constructive ways to exist peacefully together, we might be able to make this world a better place. Changing a world filled with hate and misunderstanding cannot happen overnight, but with each individual step forward, we have the chance to make a giant difference.
Apply today for the Fain 2017 Awards. Applications close May 5, 2017 and awards will be presented at the URJ Biennial.