In a ‘what do I do now’ moment, Jewish college students work to build cross-cultural bridges
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'Differences can be good and can be used for good'

In a ‘what do I do now’ moment, Jewish college students work to build cross-cultural bridges

Gutted by uptick of faith-driven hate crimes, Interfaith Youth Core provides tools to combat divisiveness and intolerance on hundreds of US campuses

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Students and campus allies attend the Interfaith Leadership Institute in Chicago, Illinois, 2016. (Courtesy of Interfaith Youth Core)
Students and campus allies attend the Interfaith Leadership Institute in Chicago, Illinois, 2016. (Courtesy of Interfaith Youth Core)

The morning after the US presidential election in November, Northeastern University senior Lindsey Bressler felt shaken. The results were not what the liberal Jewish student from Tucson, Arizona had hoped for, and she asked herself, “What do I do now?”

For Bressler, who has been involved in interfaith dialogue on her college campus since her freshman year, the answer was obvious. She turned to fellow members of the university’s interfaith council for mutual support. In the current climate of increased divisiveness, suspicion and fear, she felt there was an especially acute need to reach out and create safe spaces for religious diversity.

Recently released FBI statistics indicating that hate crimes against Muslims in 2015 reached their highest level since 2001 support anecdotal evidence of increased intolerance, including on college campuses. Jews are targeted more than Muslims, with 51.3% of the 5,850 hate crimes reported in 2015 classified as anti-Semitic.

At a time when many Muslim and Jewish students feel threatened, students of all faiths are not only talking to one another, but are also committing to stand up for each other. Hillel International president and CEO Eric Fingerhut, for example, stated unequivocally at the organization’s Global Assembly in Orlando, Florida, in December that Hillel houses around North America would stand up against Islamophobia.

“Our obligation… is to pursue justice for all people, not just for the Jewish community on campus… Hillel will also lead the fight to protect those of other religions and beliefs, because that is what Jews do,” he said in his remarks.

Erica Shaps (center) and friends participated in an Interfaith Youth Core 'Better Together' sock drive in 2011. (Courtesy)
Erica Shaps (center) and friends participated in an Interfaith Youth Core ‘Better Together’ sock drive in 2011. (Courtesy)

While this all sounds very positive, it should not be assumed that interfaith dialogue and cooperation on college campuses is easy and organic. Students often feel uncomfortable speaking about religion and faith on secular campuses, according to Rabbi Danielle Stillman, director of Jewish student life and faculty advisor to the interfaith student group at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Campuses are not necessarily different from the rest of American society, where people of differing religious backgrounds do not usually know and interact with one another on a daily basis. For instance, according to the Pew Research Center, only half of Americans have met a Muslim, and even fewer know anything about Islam.

Since interfaith dialogue takes intentional effort and planning, many student groups and their faculty advisors rely on guidance and resources from Interfaith Youth Core. The Chicago-based non-partisan, not-for-profit organization trains young people to build respectful and productive relationships between different faith communities and the individuals within them.

Eboo Patel speaks at the Hillel International Global Assembly in Orlando, Florida, December 2016. (Courtesy of Hillel International)
Eboo Patel speaks at the Hillel International Global Assembly in Orlando, Florida, December 2016. (Courtesy of Hillel International)

IFYC was founded in 2002 by Eboo Patel, a Muslim American focused on creating healthy religiously diverse American democracy. Patel found this to be a challenge in a society where people are free to make their personal convictions public, but where opposing views on fundamental issues, questions and concerns in life often clash.

“I think the answer is that we have to recognize that people can disagree on some fundamental or ultimate concerns, and work together on others. An interfaith leader creates the spaces, curates the conversations and forms the activities for these kinds of relationships to emerge,” Patel recently told The New York Times.

To describe these relationships, Patel uses a familiar metaphor: bridges. “But bridges don’t fall from the sky or rise from the ground,” he warned.

These relationships must be built by coming together around issues of shared concern, while at the same time recognizing that there will be areas in which there will never be agreement.

“The ability to disagree with people on some fundamental things and work with them on others isn’t natural for the human psyche or civil society. Leaders have to create that, and we have to be strategic about creating those leaders,” Patel said.

In practical, on-campus terms, this would translate to conservative Catholic and liberal Jewish students maintaining their respective theological positions on say, abortion, while cooperating on service projects helping the homeless or fighting human trafficking.

In some cases, campus interfaith groups go big and sponsor alternative spring break trips like one Bressler went on in 2015. That trip to the US South marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma Bridge Crossing and the Voting Rights Movement.

Lindsey Bressler (second from right) with her interfaith group at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 2015. (Courtesy)
Lindsey Bressler (second from right) with her interfaith group at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 2015. (Courtesy)

Patel (who also spoke at last month’s Hillel Global Assembly) has grown IFYC from a small operation to a 40-person organization active on 350 college campuses, mainly with small and medium-size independent colleges, with more than 1,000 campuses using its resources. IFYC supports over 11,000 academics teaching interfaith studies in the classroom, co-curricular staff working in student affairs offices and with student groups, and administrators wanting to institutionalize interfaith initiatives.

The organization is probably best known for its work with undergraduate students like 21-year-old Bressler, who has attended three of IFYC’s leadership institutes. The 7,600 students currently in IFYC’s network receive ongoing in-person and online support and mentoring from IFYC staff, but there is something especially powerful about the conferences that bring together leaders from different campuses.

“It was at my first leadership institute that I really saw that this was a national movement,” Bressler said.

Disproportionate Jewish participation

According to IFYC communications director Nasser Asif, Jewish students like Bressler make up a disproportionate percentage of the students active in IFYC’s national network. A recent survey of 1,100 of the network’s 26,000 alumni found that 17% were Jewish (the break down was 48% Reform, 30% Conservative, 4% Orthodox, and 30% other).

It might be expected that young Jews brought up on tikkun olam projects would be attracted to the IFYC approach to interfaith work, but more ritually oriented ones have also been interested.

An interfaith student group from Northeastern University helps restore parkland around Boston, Massachusetts, 2016. (Courtesy of Emerald Necklace Conservancy)
An interfaith student group from Northeastern University helps restore parkland around Boston, Massachusetts, 2016. (Courtesy of Emerald Necklace Conservancy)

Jeremy Tibbetts is a 22-year-old senior at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He wears a kippa and ritual fringes, observes Shabbat and kashrut and spent a year at an Israeli yeshiva. A leader in Hillel and the campus Orthodox student group, he had not thought much about other religions before junior year.

“Interfaith was not emphasized in my upbringing,” said Tibbetts, who attended a Jewish day school in the Boston area for part of high school.

Tibbetts was part of a core group of Jewish and Muslim students who revived interfaith dialogue activities on campus last year. They’ve since been joined by students of other faiths and have held informal social events and gone together to support one another and show their joint opposition when so-called “alt-right” journalist Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak.

‘The country and people feel very divided right now. There is dangerous rhetoric targeting Muslims and Jews. It doesn’t feel good to be a minority now’

“The country and people feel very divided right now. There is dangerous rhetoric targeting Muslims and Jews. It doesn’t feel good to be a minority now. I was in Penn Station in New York last month and someone told me I hope you get blown up,” Tibbetts said.

He sees interfaith dialogue as a tool for helping people come together while navigating differences.

“What I’ve learned from interfaith is that differences can be good and can be used for good,” said Tibbetts, who would like to work in Jewish education after graduation and is thinking of bringing more interfaith activities into observant Jewish communities.

Erica Shaps (second from left) at a recent reunion of IFYC friends in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)
Erica Shaps (second from left) at a recent reunion of IFYC friends in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

Twenty-five-year-old Erica Shaps graduated from Brandeis in 2013 and uses what she learned from her interfaith activities there in her work in Israel as Middle East Program Coordinator for Encounter. The program brings pluralistic groups of Jewish American leaders and future leaders to the Palestinian territories in the West Bank to meet with Palestinian leaders and civilians. Following the meetings with Palestinians, the American Jewish leaders engage in intra-group dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The dialogue skills she learned from IFYC training directly apply to the intra-communal discussions among the Jewish leaders. She also sees a parallel between the listening she did in interfaith groups and the kind required for taking in the Palestinians’ narratives.

‘It’s about building a shared understanding and seeing where values intersect, and also where they don’t’

“What we do at Encounter is motivated by a curiosity to understand the Palestinians’ story that is like that in interfaith dialogue to understand a Christian’s story, or a Muslim’s story. It’s about building a shared understanding and seeing where values intersect, and also where they don’t,” she said.

Furthermore, Shaps discovered that interfaith dialogue not only helped her comprehend others’ religious practices. It also helped her understand more about her own. She’s become a more informed and engaged Jew by taking an interest in other religions.

“I started asking myself why I do things, why I engage in certain practices. For example, my Shabbat observance changed once I started questioning and thinking critically about it in response to questions my non-Jewish roommates were asking me,” she said.

Lehigh University students, staff and faculty engage in dialogue with guest speaker Rabbi Yehuda Sarna (right) about his interfaith work, September 29, 2016. (John Kish)
Lehigh University students, staff and faculty engage in dialogue with guest speaker Rabbi Yehuda Sarna (right) about his interfaith work, September 29, 2016. (John Kish)

At Lehigh, Stillman helped students organize a well-attended interfaith dinner and dialogue event a week after the election. The election itself was not directly discussed. Instead, student facilitators led table discussions on topics like stereotyping, intersecting identities and shared values. Some of the same students will travel together to Israel in March on a trip led by Stillman. The itinerary will include visits to holy sites and meetings with shared society and interfaith groups.

‘We are living in a moment of divisiveness and intolerance that will test the mettle of interfaith leaders on campus’

Whether or not students directly engage with the current political situation, Asif believes that what matters is that they come out for events like the one at Lehigh in November, and that they follow through on what they learn from interacting with one another.

“We are living in a moment of divisiveness and intolerance that will test the mettle of interfaith leaders on campus. We hope to see them stand up and be active allies for those facing discrimination, oppression and victimization. We hope they seek out dialogue with those with whom they disagree deeply and don’t retreat into their bubbles. And we hope they create strong interfaith networks on campus as a prophylactic [against hate and intolerance],” Asif said.

According to Stillman, it’s incredibly important for young people to recognize in this contentious time that there are ways to learn and speak about religion that don’t begin with disagreement.

Asif echoed the same idea, only he used a slang term college kids would surely get.

“It’s about dialogue across difference without it turning into a total dumpster fire,” he said.

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