Learning to see an individual as an individual

As I made my way back home from the Muslim Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference hosted by The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom in New Jersey earlier this month, I had the chance to think about the impact the day-long conference had on me. Not only did I get to meet such friendly and inspiring Muslim and Jewish women from across the country (from as close as Newark, New Jersey to as far away as Santa Barbara, California), I had the opportunity to test the waters, if you will, in what has been a personal goal of mine for the past few weeks: story-telling. All in all, it was a wonderful experience.

As I reminisced with some of my new friends after the conference ended, the challenge going forward is how to take what we’ve learned and share it with the communities we live in. The challenge of doing interfaith work for me has always been whether or not I’m just preaching to the choir. Sure, it’s great to connect with like-minded individuals who are committed to the idea that religion has some good to play in our lives. But do our dialogues transcend our little circles? If not, do we risk inflating our egos without affecting any change where it’s most needed?

I’m starting a local interfaith initiative in Indianapolis called the Muslim Jewish Women’s Alliance (MJWA), a joint project of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council and the Muslim Alliance of Indiana. The conference could not have occurred at a better time. I attended the NJ conference partly with the frame of mind of getting ideas on how to sustain this project. The planners of MJWA have all agreed that we want to open this group to women of the Jewish and Islamic faiths from across the spectrum, from liberal to conservative to in-between. The primary criteria we seek in our future members is whether they are committed to the principal of mutual understanding and friendship. Naturally, being a Jewish and Muslim interfaith project, the issue of Palestine was sure to come up in our planning sessions. How would we address such a thorny issue? It was bound to arise. Together, we decided in our planning meetings that we weren’t going to shy away from the issue. There was just no way around it. But politics, at least foreign politics, wasn’t the reason why were were starting this project in the first place.

Earlier in the year, I had attended an event at a local synagogue that had invited a group of women from West Galilee, who were a part of their own interfaith group, called Women Cooking Dialogue. I had the privilege of sitting at a table with two of these women. One was an Israeli Jew and the other a Muslim woman who described herself as an Arab Muslim woman living in Israel. We talked about the thorny issue of politics and whether that was ever a topic of conversation and the Muslim woman told me, “Of course. We talk about it and we don’t agree.” But that didn’t stop these women from getting to know one another and eventually becoming dear friends. When I heard this, I was prompted to act with urgency. “If Muslim and Jewish women living in Israel can become friends, what’s stopping us, living in America?” I thought.

As one of my new friends from the NJ conference told me, “We’re American. We can’t let what’s going in foreign soil affect how we live our life here.” And that’s the truth. In today’s political climate, all minority groups have something in common. It seems foolish to allow our differences to disengage us from interacting and working with one another for a common cause. Muslim and Jews in particular have much in common, but now more than ever, we can and must join hands.

Naturally, I’ve received questions regarding the nature of MJWA. The Jewish organization, as one woman commented, is “Anti-BDS. How can we as Muslims reconcile that?” It’s a complicated issue, for sure. During grad school, when I first got started with interfaith work, I received some offhanded comments from a couple of Muslims that I should not engage with Hillel because of their apartheid regime against Palestine and Palestinians. As a Muslim of Indian origin, perhaps the issue does not hit as close to home as it does for some Muslims, but as I confided to a friend, also involved with interfaith: “Hillel invited me to this interfaith event, knowing full well that I am Muslim.” To say no would mean that I was cutting off any prospect of future reconciliation. Also, there was going to be Challah bread and I couldn’t say no to that!

The lesson for me from this entire experience, and the whole point of interfaith, is that we learn to distinguish human individuals from the organizations we associate them with. Not all Jews are the same and not all Muslims are the same. And this is something that we hope to establish with MJWA. Perhaps an Orthodox Jew will start a friendship with a liberal Muslim and a conservative Muslim woman who observes the niqab makes friends with a secular Jewish woman. I’m sure that image might confound some people, but I believe it’s possible. The entire enterprise of interfaith is principled on this very hope: that despite our glaring differences, we can still manage to find some commonality with another human being that looks different from us. Hopefully, through the course of our exchanges, we begin to see this individual as the complex and multi-layered person that he or she is. But interfaith can never be a one-way street, because somewhere along the way, we recognize this very same truth in ourselves, as well.

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