For many of us Thanksgiving is a time to gather with family and friends, to eat a bounty of food, and to share or give thanks for the blessings we have in our lives. It is a holiday that is uniquely American in that it encompasses our history and traditions as a nation, where the table is open to every person from every background, religion, or culture. It's a time for gathering together and pausing for a moment from the hectic routine of our everyday to take stock of whom and what we have in our lives.
This year I've been reminded of something else to give thanks for—freedom. For Americans, our freedom manifests itself in the activities of our everyday lives: how we express ourselves, who we decide to associate with, our religious or non-religious affiliations and practices, opportunities to set a course for our future, and much more. For true democracies such as the U.S. and Israel we have a gift that many people throughout the world still struggle to grasp hold of.
For Azad, an Iranian student who just came to the U.S. a few months ago and is now studying in Chicago, this struggle is relevant. Azad is a nickname for this student who has chosen to remain anonymous. But the name has significance for this story—it means "freedom." Azad was raised in Tehran and lived through the popular uprising and protests after Iran's rigged election in 2009. As an artist he was able to capture some amazing photographs throughout the protests, a few of them are posted here. Azad was arrested three times—many of his photographs were confiscated.
Azad shared with me the struggle of ordinary Iranian citizens that are desperately trying to accomplish the extraordinary in their country—gain their freedom. He tells me that Iranians are desperate for this, and have been disenfranchised by a despotic regime. The struggle of these citizens through economic hardship is worsened by the fact that their tax dollars are sent overseas to terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
Azad also told me that many of these Iranian citizens, himself included, love another democracy closer to home—Israel. He reminded me of the history that Israel and Iran shared before the revolution in '79 and going back as far as Biblical times. His love and interest in learning more about Israel and eventually studying there is part of the reason he became connected with Jewish students when he arrived in Chicago.
After befriending an active member of Hillel, Azad soon found a warm welcome to this country and to his college from all of the Jewish students active with Hillel. From that point on he became involved in activities, attended meetings, and was provided opportunities to learn more about Judaism and the Jewish connection to Israel.
Just recently the Israel Education Center cosponsored a program with Hillel, featuring Gil Hoffman, Chief Political Correspondent of the Jerusalem Post. Hillel students and staff including Azad were briefed about current events in the Middle East and in Israel. At the end of the talk Azad was able to share his experience in Iran and his photographs with Hoffman and other students.
Erin Jones, Program Director at the Hillels Around Chicago sees students such as Azad being brought into the group due to the strong leadership and outreach of their Jewish students:
"Our Hillel really embodies the Abrahamic ethos of hospitality. Non-Jewish students are always welcome at our Shabbat dinners, Hillel meetings, and cultural programs. While some of these students might be exploring Judaism, others are simply looking for community and friendship. They find both at Hillel.
"For some students our Hillel is their first experience with Judaism and with Israel. Our Hillel provides a safe, inviting place to meet Jewish students and explore Jewish culture and our connection to Israel. I'm incredibly proud of our Hillel students, Jewish and not Jewish. Together they are building a campus community that celebrates interfaith and intercultural dialogue and embraces our differences with respect and friendship."
For students such as Azad, the outreach and friendship of Jewish students on his campus has provided a place where unique friendships can be formed, ideas shared, and opportunities given to learn more about Israel. It is truly due to the freedom we are afforded that such an encounter can happen. Azad's dream is to eventually become a filmmaker, a passion he can pursue now that he is in the U.S., and eventually hopes to study in Israel. This Thanksgiving, this story reminds me of the importance of a gathering place. A place where people can come together, reach out to others, share their experiences, stories, and future dreams. And my prayer is for those who struggle for this same freedom.