A Mensch's Guide to Campus Activism


Learning with peers of other religions can change your life

 Adam Palmer 
By Adam Palmer

College students are taking an increased interest in their own faiths and in the religions of their peers, launching and participating in a great breadth of interfaith projects at campuses across the country.

Danielle Josephs, who recently graduated from Rutgers University, is the founder of the Mid-East Coexistence House, a dormitory that strives “to train women to become ambassadors in their community and go on to make a difference,” Josephs said. The house’s administrators pick out students with opinions on every side of the Middle East conflict and push them into the intimacy of a college dorm.

When Josephs first arrived at Rutgers, the Jewish and Arab-Muslim communities were warring about the situation in the Middle East, she said. Wanting to help, Josephs dedicated time to pro-Israel programming through Hillel. Educating the campus about Israel made the situation seem better, but it did not ease the tension between the two communities.

It was then that Josephs realized, “If you’re not building bridges, then it won’t work.”

At first, Josephs founded a group to encourage dialogue between Jews and Muslims. But she quickly identified the two reasons that the group was not succeeding the way she hoped it would: there was no reinforcement, and there was no context. She found a solution: build a place where students can converse on a 24/7 basis.

The Rutgers administration was enthusiastic about Josephs’ project, but she had trouble recruiting students to live in the new house, she said.

“This is not a project formed to make one comfortable,” she says. “It’s supposed to push you out of your comfort zone.”

Nonetheless, Josephs found 12 women – herself included – to live in the Mid-East Coexistence House during the 2006-2007 academic year. In addition to living together, the residents took a weekly class about the conflict, planned programs for the entire campus and even took a fully-funded trip to Turkey to study the history of the Jewish and Muslim communities there.

Jewish and Muslim students do find common ground on campus.

Josephs devoted her senior thesis to studying the viability of the house as a general model for conflict resolution. She found that residents of the house have undergone critical changes in mindset about issues that are central to the Middle East conflict. They were prepared to listen to each other and aim for peace.

Josephs said that her Jewish identity is largely based on her love for the state of Israel and her hope for peace in the Middle East. Living in the Coexistence House strengthened this identity.

“I look at coexistence as a pro-Israel activity,” she said.

As a result of her work, Josephs has been the subject of articles in nearly every major American newspaper. She was featured in “Glamour Magazine” and was even invited to the White House Chanukah party.

Amanda Glassman, a senior at Brown University, said that she knew she wanted to find her faith in college but didn’t want to just study religion in the classroom. She wanted to see how different people actually live what they believe.

Glassman found that religion was not a regular conversation topic in the general student population.

“It’s too deep, it’s too personal,” she said. “It’s kind of not fashionable to talk about God.”

She moved into Brown’s Interfaith House at the beginning of her sophomore year. She said she enjoyed everything from panel discussions on issues like afterlife to casual ‘toothbrush debates’ – late-night discussions about faith.

During Glassman’s time in Interfaith House, the residents decided to throw a party with a holiday theme. Being an interfaith environment, they prepared to decorate rooms for holidays from all religions and all seasons. In the end, they chose to add holidays that aren’t considered religious, such as Valentine’s Day, to the more religious holidays. Looking back, Glassman said, although it sounds silly, she still knows why they included St. Patrick’s Day along with Easter.

“Knowing our differences we chose to practice things that are the same,” Glassman said.

Interfaith living isn’t the only way to get involved in interfaith projects. Smaller projects can be just as effective as means of starting dialogue.

Nathan Render, a junior at Tufts University, helped start a government-funded interfaith initiative called Pathways. In addition to planning events and bringing speakers for the entire campus to enjoy, Pathways has added two classes to the Tufts course catalog: The Power of Narrative: Exploring the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict through Literature and Film and Pathways to Faith: Religious Pluralism Dialogue. The classes can be taken for credit.

“The leaders of all the communities never had a way to collaborate,” Render said. “This has given them a forum to talk.”

For Render, interfaith projects are particularly important for Jewish college students.

 “It’s important to understand our position in the world, and to understand it in relation to other faiths, especially on college campuses,” he said. “Since we’re all in the same place, it’s really important to really understand each other and how we’re all working together toward a common goal.”

Render has seen the effect that Pathways has had on Jewish students who came from either very strong or very weak Jewish communities.

“In both those extremes it’s had a really positive impact in forming a positive Jewish identity,” he said.

It takes a lot of work and time to convince a university administration to start a major program like interfaith living or Pathways. But something as simple as inviting non-Jewish students to Shabbat dinner can start up a healthy dialogue.

Alexandra Ash, a senior at the University of Chicago, organized the fourth annual Interfaith Shabbat. She said the event promoted religious discussion and social networking among students who might not usually meet. Ash attributes the event’s success to the Shabbat atmosphere.

“Shabbat’s a time for spending with people,” Ash said.

Posted: 10/22/2007 09:01:08 AM

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