SAN JOSE, Calif. – An interfaith meeting of young people may not strike anyone as headline news. But for those of us at the event, it was a moment to cherish and draw inspiration from, particularly in these dark and difficult times.
Accompanied by a few mothers and mentors, about 40 kids – ages 9 to 22 – arrived at the Evergreen Islamic Center (EIC), in the foothills above San Jose, California. The group, from a progressive Jewish summer camp in the Southern California city of Big Bear Lake, were greeted by an equal number of Muslim youth and parents.
Their visit was prompted by a hate letter sent to Evergreen just before last year’s Thanksgiving holiday.
“We will not tolerate or accept racism, sexism, climate denial, homophobia, xenophobia or Islamophobia in any form,” wrote Shira Menter, a Camp Gilboa staff member and mentor, in a letter to Evergreen after she learned of the incident. “We want you to feel safe, accepted, and free to practice your religion wherever you choose to live.”
“My heart ached when I read the hateful letter you received from people calling themselves ‘Americans for a Better Way.’ We are part of a Jewish youth movement and we are part of the Jewish resistance. We will do whatever we can to protect you. The beauty of this country is that we celebrate diversity. Much love.”
Shira suggested that “it would be a good idea to have our kids interact with yours” as a way to “build relationships between Jews and Muslims in the United States.”
To which I could only say, ‘Amen.’ About three weeks later, the meeting materialized.
One of the leaders of the Gilboa group, Yasho, defined the goals of the meeting: a) build relationships between American Jewish and Muslim youth b) gain some understanding of each other’s religion and culture c) improve the world by partnering with one another.
As the adults in the room watched in wonder, the youth, under Yasho’s confident guidance, arranged themselves in circles and over the next several hours played games, asked and answered questions (sample: “What’s the best thing you have done for your community,” “What’s your family like, your brothers, sisters, pets? Tell a funny story about them,” “What’s your favorite class, your hobby?”, “If you could change something about the world, what would it be and how?”), pondered the dangers of labeling and judging others, and identified practical steps to making the world a better place through personal acts of courage and kindness.
They were shy at first but within minutes, our prayer hall was resonant with the kids opening up to one another as if they had known each other for years. They shared ideas and challenged their feasibility, came up with ways to improve bad situations at home and school, discussed the cruelty of bullying and the importance of befriending bullied students, expressed what social justice meant to them, and listed steps to organize themselves to achieve a goal - all with humor and grace.
When Sid, a computer science major at Berkeley, suggested that everyone should follow the Golden Rule – treat others as you would like to be treated – Elliot, a precocious 6th-grader, wasn’t convinced. “What if they don’t want to be treated like the way you want to be treated?”
There was silence, followed by some giggles. It’s probably fair to say that no one in recorded history had ever questioned the logic of the Golden Rule, but then no one had to contend with an irrepressible 12-year-old genius.
“Well, just treat him well, then!” said Sid.
“How?” persisted Elliot.
Ronnie came to the rescue: “Just ask!”
Elliot seemed doubtful but decided to let it pass!
“Ignore all the hate mail you get because these people are mean and cruel. Remember that they don’t know who you are.”
A bond has been forged. On their own, without any parental interference, Jewish and Muslim children had broken through a barrier that previously made them strangers to one another.
What about the other hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Muslim children?
“Take one step at a time,” said Ephraim. “I have made Muslim friends. I now know I can make a difference.”
Zaid echoed the feeling. “Change one person at a time and you will change the world.”
Yasho had distributed a special type of paper to the youth that contained seeds. “Write on your seed paper how you will make the world grow better. Take it home and plant it and whatever grows will be a reminder to you to try to change the world.” The paper itself contained this instruction: “Plant this in your garden. Keep it moist. Watch it grow!”
What did some of the youth write in their seed paper?
“Lead by example.” “Become a doctor and provide healthcare to the poor.” “Let this be the first meeting of many more meetings between us in the future.”
The laughter on the surface was tempered by concern about the country’s current direction. Mosques have been burned to the ground and Muslims have been attacked. Many Jewish Centers have been threatened and Jewish homes spray-painted with swastikas while several Jewish graveyards have been desecrated.
But witnessing this kind of Jewish-Muslim bonding in just a few hours gives hope that hate and bigotry will never be the last words that define our nation but that love and fighting for justice will.
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