Five Muslim and five Jewish students from Princeton University spent part of their winter break in Detroit, on a trip meant to promote interfaith service, learning, and dialogue.
Organized around daily themes like faith and service, culture, and personal freedom, the trip featured visits to a downtown synagogue and a mosque, to Muslim and Jewish family service agencies, and to the nearby Holocaust Memorial Center museum and The Arab American National Museum, as well as hands-on volunteering in a range of community organizations, from soup kitchens to an LGBT drop-in center.
Some of the best conversations, said Matt Silberman, a sophomore and trip co-leader, happened during car rides rather than in “official” dialogue sessions.
“When you are constantly with a group of people, the walls start to come down without people even realizing it,” he said.
The trip arose out of the strategic planning process of the university’s Center for Jewish Life/Hillel, which emphasized a fellowship program combining Jewish study with other student interests and educational travel experiences (see box).
Silberman said he started thinking about the need for a campus dialogue group over the summer. “Not so we could sit down and talk about the conflict,” he said, noting a number of groups already doing that, “but so we could get to know each other.”
Sunny Siddique, also a sophomore and trip co-leader, had not met a Jew before he came to Princeton and had a Jewish roommate freshman year.
“Over the summer it kind of bothered me to see the chaos that was happening in the Middle East and conflicts between Muslims and Jews, which is why I wanted to do something that would not be focused on the conflict by itself but more about what sort of positive things that we as Muslims and Jews can do together,” Siddique said.
Siddique and Silberman became co-leaders of a Muslim-Jewish dialogue group on campus cosponsored by the CJL and the Muslim Life Program that had been largely inactive. Because Siddique had led two trips in Princeton’s Breakout program — where students combine service with learning about a serious social issue — he thought a trip was a way to reinvigorate the group.
The idea behind the dialogue group and the trip, Siddique explained, is for members to get to know each other as people and as friends.
“In the same way you wouldn’t go up to a stranger on the street and ask about their political group, going up to someone of another faith and just asking them about that faith ignores who they are,” he said. “This is an opportunity to know each other as people and become friends before we delve into more complex topics.”
Silberman said his interest in dialogue grew out of his grandmother’s experience during the Holocaust. She was hidden for two years by Marisia, a Polish Catholic woman who after the war remained a part of Silberman family celebrations. “Marisia didn’t view my grandmother as just a Jew, as someone who was different from her who she had no responsibility to help,” Silberman said. “She viewed my grandmother as a person, and to her it was obvious she would help another person.”
Accompanying the students on the Princeton trip were Ya’arah Pinhas, social justice fellow at the CJL, and Imam Sohaib Sultan, Muslim life coordinator and chaplain at Princeton.
“They all bonded so well that if anything happened on campus they can fall back on the bonds that developed when there was no conflict,” said Pinhas.
Organizers plan a follow-up to the trip, including three text-based sessions for the Muslim-Jewish dialogue group, led by Sultan and CJL executive director Rabbi Julie Roth, and five hours of joint service.