Students of different faiths came together for one unifying mission Thursday at Hendrix College – to find ways to bridge gaps in interfaith dialogue.
The Project Pericles forum in Hendrix’s Student Life and Technology Center, led by New York University students Zohaib Anwar and Avi Rothfeld, touched on misconceptions about religion and current events around the world.
As part of the discussion, Anwar and Rothfeld — of Muslim and Jewish faiths, respectively — said the common thread that links them together is service.
The two are part of NYU Bridges, a student-led organization that was born out of a desire to put aside the "us vs. them" notions that society can place on people of different faiths.
Since its inception, the organization has traveled to disaster-stricken communities, helping local residents rebuild.
As part of those efforts, the two students, along with the leadership of the Jewish Disaster Response Corp are helping homeowners in Mayflower and Vilonia recover from last year’s deadly EF4 tornado.
"Service is such a common ground between different communities, especially different faith communities, because it’s so often that when there is a disaster somewhere or when there is service that’s needed, it’s often faith-based organizations that are the first to respond," Rothfeld said.
He added that service is a "starting point" to further understanding the links people of different faiths have.
Anwar said, as a child, he was always taught to help people, regardless of religious beliefs.
"Be the person that people can go to with their problems and you can help them," he said. "As I grew older, I started noticing that Islam… is very oriented around knowing people’s struggles, empathizing with their problems."
Adina Remz, executive director of the Jewish Disaster Response Corp, said her organization will bring a total of 10 different college groups through March to support tornado relief.
As part of the experience, the groups meet with residents affected by the tornado and also reach out to the local community after a day’s work.
"These are two communities [Muslims and Jews] that people don’t normally associate with working together," Remz said. "What better way to bring them together than through service. You start at a place where everyone can agree."
The NYU crew will head out of central Arkansas at the end of this week. A mixture of other U.S. colleges will come in March – the University of Illinois – Chicago, the University of California – Los Angeles, Syracuse University, Rutgers University and State University – Buffalo, New York.
Efforts in Vilonia and Mayflower from this round of volunteerism include framing chicken coops, building a deck, insulation work and painting two houses.
The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a discussion that members of NYU Bridges continue to have, though the group believes interfaith dialogue should not be defined by conflicts around the world.
"Interfaith dialogue is somewhat separate from discussing political issues and solving a crisis that we may not have the tools to solve, and we may not even have the knowledge to solve," Anwar said.
Rothfeld said creating a "new narrative" for Muslim-Jewish relations is essential to removing stereotypes and negativity.
"Once you’re able to build relationships and build trust and can understand that people really have good intentions and want to learn from you and are generally interested in your point of view, those conversations can be something productive," he said.
Anwar agreed, saying, "While they may share a different religion, they are basically the same as I am."
Though the two students have been active in NYU Bridges for some time now, there were some concepts that Anwar and Rothfeld admit they didn’t quite grasp until later on in their time with the group.
For Anwar, that was the idea of "kosher" and, for Rothfeld, the conflict came from needing to feel secure in his knowledge of Judaism.
While in central Arkansas, Rothfeld said people haven’t responded negatively to their interfaith dialogue.
"That’s amazing," he said. "It makes me rethink, like, what we’re my assumptions about the south."
Each time he has traveled to disaster-stricken areas, Anwar said he has rarely found a person in Oklahoma, Missouri or Arkansas that has criticized his beliefs.
"The only thing I’ve seen people do is talk with love," he said. "It just really warms my heart, the welcome we always get."
Rothfeld said NYU Bridges is really the first experience he has had in teaching others about the Jewish faith and learning from others.
That, he said, results in some self-awareness of areas in which he could greater improve his knowledge of his own religious beliefs.
"It’s really inspiring to me on these mission trips to see the Muslims praying because when you’re living together it’s really interesting," Rothfeld said. "You have to create a space for everyone’s different religious practices. It almost becomes part of my day."
Anwar said he has seen how strong people of the Jewish faith can be in practicing their beliefs, evident through knowledge of the Torah.
"I find it respectable and paying honor to their religion that they know their religion so well that they’re able to reference where the text mentions the topic," he said. "It’s made me want to learn my book more – the Quran."
Jim Wiltgen, dean of students at Hendrix, asked the two NYU students about handling situations in which people might not be as welcoming of interfaith dialogue.
Rothfeld said the worst reaction he’s received is a comment supporting the idea of serving others but not necessarily the approach.
"I really think there really is a need [for understanding] that a lot of people are feeling as a lot of communities are coming into contact with each other more and more, especially when you’re at a school," he said.
Other Hendrix faculty and staff including Jay McDaniel, professor of religious studies; J.J. Whitney, associate chaplain; and Duff Campbell, professor of mathematics.
"I think in general, interfaith cooperation is really critical to the future of the world, so let’s do it everywhere we can," McDaniel said.
Rothfeld said the relationship between Muslims and Jews at NYU started with a service trip to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
"It’s since then has grown to different where we come to experience each others faiths," he said. "The Muslim community invites Jewish students to come to the Jumu’ah prayers (Friday congregational prayer). The Jewish community invites Muslims to come to Shabbat."
Freshman Anusheh Ali, member of the Muslim Student Association at Hendrix, said she learned a lot of new ideas from the forum that could be brought to Hendrix to create more interfaith discussions.
"It kind of gives me hope that people of different faiths can come together," she said. "We can step outside of our own selves and learn to help other people."
(Staff writer Brandon Riddle can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 505-1215 or on Twitter @BrandonCRiddle. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to thecabin.net. Send us your news at thecabin.net/submit)