Rutgers program aims to bridge gaps

Rutgers program aims to bridge gaps

Shelley Friedman presents the tapestry to the U.N. Flanking her, from left, are Tiffany Taylor, Laura Friedman, Donna Rosa, and John Vincent.

Rutgers University junior Shelley Friedman of Fair Lawn believes strongly that people can learn to look beyond stereotypes. And as co-president of the university’s Shalom/Salaam – a nonpolitical student organization – she is working to prove that.

A product of New Milford’s Solomon Schechter Day School and the Frisch School in Paramus, Ms. Friedman wants Jews and Muslims to “set aside their differences and come together to work toward positive causes.

“The way I see it, if I can forge strong bonds between myself and Muslims my age, we can form a steady foundation of trust and understanding that will affect the way Jews and Muslims see each other in the future,” she said.

According to Ms. Friedman, Shalom/Salaam was formed several years ago by Jewish student Will Eastman and a Muslim friend, Bahaa Hashem.

“They realized that it was important for the gap between Jews and Muslims to be bridged,” she said. “There are a lot of stereotypes splitting them apart. They thought that if they could work through peace, not politics, coming together for things like community service, they would learn to see each other as people.”

Ms. Friedman, who said she came to Rutgers “well rooted in her Jewish background,” participated in community service projects throughout her school years but is new to this kind of outreach.

“I’ve done a lot of community service, like working in soup kitchens, but I never did social outreach work,” she said, adding that she served on the Hillel board during her freshman year at Rutgers. “I enjoyed that, but I also realized that it is important to reach out to others.

“In my sophomore year, I was elected co-president of Shalom/Salaam. It was helpful to have both connections, since I could get more Jewish kids involved.” Her co-president, Saira Shakir, was working with Muslim students at the time, affording her the same opportunity to reach out to members of that group.

“We try to show that we are all people and want similar things,” Ms. Friedman said. “Most of us want to work together with others.

“Of course, discourse and dialogue are good, but extremism is not,” she said, pointing out that “most people are not extremists. There’s a better way to share political views.”

Her group maintains that by fostering situations where people from the two groups can work together toward something positive, “Muslims and Jews will have the opportunity to realize that they might like each other, despite preconceived notions.”

The group’s board meets every two months, with a general meeting once a month. The number of participants varies according to the activity and may range from 40 to several hundred students, Ms. Friedman said. Members are fairly evenly divided between Jews of all streams and Muslims, although some Christians participate as well. The organization receives funding from the university.

“We have a lot of social exchanges and community service projects,” Ms. Friedman said. For example, students recently came together to make sandwiches and deliver them to the homeless in Newark. The organization also held a Friday night interfaith dinner – including both kosher and halal foods – where the several hundred attendees talked about their cuisines, cultures, and customs.

“We call it breaking cultural barriers,” Ms. Friedman said. “We get to know each other and embrace our differences. The main purpose of the organization is to work toward mutual understanding at the grassroots level. If we can foster that, it will positively impact the way we interact in the future.

“I definitely think the pay-it-forward model is a good philosophy for life. You do your little thing and that will set the ball rolling, and then everyone will make their impact.”

Over the last year, students have been involved in the creation of a large tapestry, which was presented to the United Nations Association-USA Region 7 at a ceremony in the United Nations Assembly Hall on February. The tapestry now will be circulated among the chapters of the association. On its return, it will be given a permanent home in a still-to-be-determined location.

The tapestry is made up of 140 distinct cloth patches, each selected by participants and bearing the contributor’s name, place of birth, and ancestry.

“The purpose of the tapestry is to demonstrate that personal efforts toward tolerance and understanding can patch up unfortunate issues of mistrust or miscommunication from stereotypes, preconceived notions, and assumptions,” Ms. Friedman said.

The group is now considering the idea of continuing the project on a smaller scale, creating mini-tapestries or blankets to distribute to the homeless.

Ms. Friedman said the Shalom/Salaam project already has borne fruit, with friendships developing between the two groups.

“We’ve noticed that a lot of people realize they like one another and go out for coffee together,” she said. “That’s the beauty of the whole organization.

“People realize they like each other and can get along. While we don’t expect to change the world, every little step is important.

“If every Jew could speak to one Muslim on a human level, the way the dialogue could unfold would be more civil. We’d have a more empathetic view of other side, as humans – not as the enemy.”

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