|Jewish and Muslim teens, joined by Barbara Haber, Avodat Shalom’s assistant educator, exchange ideas during a meeting at the River Edge synagogue.|
It seems like such a reasonable, obvious idea.
Have Jewish and Muslim teenagers talk to each other. Let them listen to each other. Let them compare traditions and experiences; let them figure out what makes them similar and what differentiates their own tradition and makes it special.
Let them see the humanity in each other.
Right now, though, the world is not a place where such conversations flourish – in fact, the world right now seems to be a place where hatred and willful misunderstanding are valued. That’s why the program bringing together Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and the Peace Island Institute, a national organization with local headquarters in Hasbrouck Heights, is unusual.
“The idea for a Jewish-Muslim teen dialogue came about in the summer, as a result of ISIS,” Paul Jacobson, Avodat Shalom’s rabbi, said. (ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, is the barbaric terrorist organization that has chosen to brand itself through beheadings.)
“Dialogue is a way of building better relationships and fostering harmonious discussion,” he continued. “We were trying to figure out if there was some way to get Muslim and Jewish teenagers together, to explore some of their similarities and some of their differences.”
The Peace Institute, most of whose members, at least according to its website, are Turkish Muslim, “is local, and it handles a lot of Islamic intercultural affairs,” Rabbi Jacobson said. “They have connections with the federation” – that’s the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey – “and the JCRC” – the Jewish Community Relations Council, the federation organization that works on interfaith affairs.
The institute, again according to its website, “aspires to facilitate a forum of mutual respect and collaboration.” It reaches out to members of other faith groups, considering diverse voices, outlooks, and worldviews “as the soil for fruitful dialogue, peace, and civil service just as the soil on this ‘global island’ gives forth flowers of different colors, scents and shapes.”
Rabbi Jacobson and his wife, Lisa, “started building a relationship with Melikhan Turklieri of the Peace Institute,” Rabbi Jacobson said; that relationship had its roots at least part in work done by the his predecessor at Avodat Shalom, Rabbi Emeritus Neal Borovitz. “Mel had invited us to host an iftar dinner at the conclusion of one of the evenings of Ramadan, and we ended up having a small dinner in our home right around the 17th of Tammuz.” (Iftar is the after-sunset dinner at which Muslims break their fast during each day of the month of Ramadan, and the 17th of Tammuz is the sunrise-to-sunset fast day commemorating the breach of the walls of Jerusalem that leads up to the fast of Tisha B’Av. This year, it fell during Ramadan, so it was possible for Muslims to have iftar and Jews to break their fast at the same dinner.)
“Part of our conversation was about how we could get our teenagers involved,” Rabbi Jacobson said. “It shouldn’t just be adults. The relationship-building should start sooner.
“So after the dinner, I went back to Mel, and I said, ‘It was a great evening. How can we do it on a larger scale?'”
That’s how the teen program was born. It’s an elective for participants in TASTE – Temple Avodat Shalom Teen Experience. During the fall semester, every Wednesday evening between seven and 10 Muslim students from the Pioneer Academy in Wayne, and an equal number of Jewish students from the River Edge shul, met for an hour “to share their experiences about Judaism and Islam, about growing up in this community,” Rabbi Jacobson said. “They were getting to know each other, not only to have the chance to explore each other’s holiday rituals and traditions and values, but also to talk about stereotypes, and have the more difficult conversations about what we see in the media.”
The conversations have to start at the beginning. “The Muslim kids don’t know many Jews, and our kids didn’t know many Muslims,” Rabbi Jacobson said. “Just having a chance to have the space to sit and talk gives us a bridge to go forward.
“We realize that we don’t have to be afraid of one another.”
Mr. Turklieri, like Rabbi Jacobson, was glad to be able to help dispel both the stereotypes that the Muslim and Jewish teenagers held, and the ones that others overlay on both groups.
“When Rabbi Jacobson suggested that we should have Jewish kids and Turkish kids find out about each other’s religions, I thought everybody knew about that. But they didn’t know. They just knew the stereotypes. It was a good thing that we did it.”
After some initial awkwardness, the two groups got along well. “Everyone was friends,” Mr. Turklieri said. “At the first class, I had them exchange numbers so that they could text, so that the next class wouldn’t be awkward. They were talking, they were cool.”
Once the social issues were navigated, the group went on to discuss content. “We found out that we have a lot of commonalities,” Mr. Turklieri said.
Among them – many male Jews wear kippot, at least when they pray; Turkish men also cover their heads during prayers. “They were blown away by the way that we pray five times a day, the way Jews pray three times a day, and that we and Jews are both not allowed to eat pork. We were both commanded by God not to eat pork,” Mr. Turklieri said.
“We have the same prophets, the same God, the same beliefs.”
Most of the meetings were held at Avodat Shalom, and one of the first ones had included a student-led tour of the sanctuary, but the program’s last meeting, for both students and their parents, was at a mosque in Paterson.
“Some of the Jewish parents were scared to come – I think they were afraid because it is in Paterson,” Mr. Turklieri said. “But it is a very safe place.
“We had Turkish tea and Turkish desserts, and a tour of the whole facility. They were just blown away by our prayer style, by the food we eat, that we are allowed to eat both halal and kosher food. They were shocked by the fact that our religions are similar.
“The program was supposed to end at 8, but at 9 everyone still was talking to each other. The kids were laughing; the parents were laughing.
“Right now, we are in the process of organizing an adult group – Turks and Jews from the synagogue – to break barriers and build bridges,” Mr. Turklieri said. “Kill the stereotyping, and just get to know each other.
“The media is basically telling us how to think. Some people just look at the media, and they say, ‘Those other people are like that, because they said so on this television show.’ I feel that getting to know each other face to face pushes all that aside. Then you have a whole other level of getting to know each other.”
He hopes that the participants in this group “will stay in touch, and will hang out. It looks like they will. Everything seems cool.
“I am hoping for the best.”
David Edelstein of Paramus, a senior at Paramus High School, is the president of TASTE. He chose to participate in the program because “I always have been interested in learning about the cultures around me,” he said. “So when I saw this, led by Rabbi Paul, I thought it would be a really cool thing to engage in dialogue with other people.”
Before they met their Muslim counterparts, he said, “we had a Skype call with a colleague of Rabbi Paul’s in Australia. We talked about Islam, and about similarities and differences. We were just getting a grasp on these people we were going to meet.
“We wanted to find out about the similarities between our religion and our cousins’ religion.”
When he went to the mosque, David was moved. “I definitely felt a spiritual presence there. It had the ambiance of a really special place.”
The chance to meet Muslim teenagers was revelatory for him. “It really was an eye-opening experience, to get to know them,” he said. “Both our religions have stereotypes about each other, particularly after 9/11. But ultimately we are good people, who want to engage in this dialogue. We hope that it is a beginning, not an end.
“When you have met someone, and gotten to know them, you can’t just say, ‘Oh, they’re Muslim,’ or, ‘Oh, they’re Jewish.’ We have to know about people before we can make any decisions about them.
“Knowledge is power. When we know what is around us, there is less fear and more discussion and understanding – and down the road, there is peace.”