After a year often marked by tension at Rutgers University between Muslim and Jewish students, an interfaith group representing both sides kicked off the school year with a program highlighting their shared aims and pledges to work together.
Mohammed Hameeduddin, the Muslim mayor of Teaneck, and Adam Gussen, the town’s Orthodox Jewish deputy mayor — both of whom are Rutgers alumni — spoke at a Sept. 12 program in New Brunswick sponsored by Rutgers Shalom/Salaam.
The student organization brings together students from both religions through social service projects and non-political programming.
The two Teaneck political leaders spoke of their own relationship, which began in middle school with a shared love of sports and continues in their government roles in their ethnically and religiously diverse Bergen County municipality.
The previous week, The Daily Targum, the university’s campus newspaper, published a letter cowritten by Muslim Student Association president Ibaad Sadiq and Rutgers Hillel president Zeke Pariser, an Orthodox Jew from Teaneck. The two student leaders pledged to work together to create an atmosphere of understanding and tolerance on campus.
“We are committed to fostering a culture of not only respect between students of different faiths, but one also conducive to the development of symbiotic relationships that produce learning, new perspectives, and friendships,” they wrote.
They reiterated that message during the Sept. 12 program, which Hillel and MSA cosponsored with the Association of Indians at Rutgers and the Pakistani Student Association.
Hameeduddin’s appointment as mayor of Teaneck, which has sizable African-American and Orthodox Jewish populations, earned national headlines in 2010. (Voice of America recently did a piece on Hameeduddin and Teaneck’s diversity that aired in the Middle East on Sept. 11.)
Hameeduddin originally sought a position on the municipal planning board at Gussen’s urging, and said he first ran for council on a three-person ticket with a Christian and another Orthodox Jew.
“Adam and I met in the sixth grade,” said Hameeduddin. “He got into a lot of trouble. I got into a lot of trouble so we got sent to the principal’s office. That’s where we actually met. We used to play basketball together.”
Gussen said the idea of a Muslim and Orthodox Jew in the top leadership roles is not seen as quite the phenomenon in ethnically and religiously diverse Teaneck as it might be in other parts of the country. “Family and friends are important to both of us,” he said. “All the meaningful things we have in common. The things we differ on are really the meaningless things.”
Hameeduddin said his parents emigrated from India.
“I think the Muslim community is where the Jewish community was 40 years ago,” Hameeduddin, said. “I think the Muslim community can learn a lot from the Jewish community.”
Both communities have intermingled in Teaneck through social service projects and gotten to know the other’s political leaders through visits to mosques and synagogues.
“I’m as American as apple pie,” said Hameeduddin. “I’ve lived here my whole life. I would not want to be Muslim in any other country.”
The event drew interested students from other ethnicities, prompting Rutgers University Student Assembly president Matthew Cordeiro to tell the crowd of more than 50 that he saw the evening as “moving forward.”
“Sometimes people don’t have to agree,” he said, “but we all should be able to talk about our cultures and be able to live together.”
Will Eastman of Marlboro, a founder and current president of Shalom/Salaam, said “the time is now” to go out and forge relationships with others.
“This is the time to recognize this while we are in the most diverse university in the most diverse state in the most diverse country in the world,” said Eastman, who is also an active member of Hillel. “Now is the time to make those lasting friendships.”