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First, Have a Conversation About What Each Person Values

Jews and Muslims need to be able to take a step back from the rhetoric and engage in personal reflection

When I first moved to Gainesville, Fla., a year and a half ago, I was rudely awakened from my shtetl existence of living in the Upper West Side for five years. No longer could I assume that kosher meat – frozen, let alone fresh – would be available at the grocery store every day, the idea of people knowing what Jewish holidays aside from Hanukkah were but a faint memory, and if I wanted to spend Shabbat with a community after shul, my best bet would be to join a tailgating crew to cheer for the Gators.
This is the world my students live in. It is possible to find kosher food if one is willing to look for it, but meal plans at the dining hall and Greek houses – even the historically Jewish sororities and fraternities – present challenges. Though Jews are usually happy to explain their tradition and culture to friends, most feel inadequately prepared to do so, especially when questions about the afterlife and belief in a messiah arise as they often do during a person’s first conversation with a Jew. And though matzah ball soup is a highlight of many of their Friday nights, so is bleeding orange and blue come Saturday morning.
If one wants to be Jewish on the typical college campus, one must actively choose to do so. And when time is the most valuable resource of any college student, if religion or cultural identity is going to be given any allocation of this finite treasure, it has to be filling a real need. Otherwise, there is no way it will be made a priority in a busy millenial’s calendar. This “need” to express, connect, or explore one’s religious or cultural identity is going to look different for different people, and our organizations must be able to fill those varied needs.
Last fall’s Pew study on Jews in America showed that 32 of millennial Jews identify as not having any religion; their Jewish identity stems from their ancestry, ethnicity or culture. This frightens many people, because if Judaism is just a culture it somehow feels “less-than.” Critics of the cultural-only connection to Judaism will focus on the fact that we truly became a religious group when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. But as I’ve come to realize through my studies with the Shalom Hartman Institute, there is more than one model for Jewish identity presented in the Torah. Yes, there is the Exodus model, which focuses on laws and a covenantal relationship with God. But there is also the Genesis model of our patriarchs – that you are Jewish because you are a member of the tribe, because your family is Jewish and you hold a set of values to be dear.
So given that 32 percent of the millennial Jewish population says they don’t have a religion, the question that seems to demand a real answer is: How do we create meaningful Jewish experiences for someone who identifies Jewishly based on the Genesis model? I believe that when students understand how and why their values are inherently Jewish, when they have an opportunity to engage with how their Jewish identity informs the decisions they make, and have a context for these values to be classified as Jewish, that campus professionals can strengthen cultural Jewish identities. It will provide a framework for them to identify as, what Avram Infeld, a past president of Hillel, would describe as “distinctively Jewish, universally human.”
For the increasing percent who don’t believe in God, we need to shift the questions we are asking, as Rabbi Art Green says, from “Do you believe that God created the world?” and “When did this happen?” to “Do you encounter a divine presence in the natural world around you?” and “What does that encounter call upon you to do?” If we are to make the teachings of our tradition relevant to this segment of our population, we need not only to talk about the God of thunder and lighting with commands at Sinai but also the God present in the Elijah story, the bat kol, the still small voice inside each of us. And how beautiful that our tradition presents multiple understandings of God so that we can find ways of connecting to the Divine in multiple ways. It is up to the Jewish community to find ways of validating those different encounters for our members, to welcome a plurality of Jewish identity into our communities.
Given the challenges facing the Muslim community on campuses, it would seem to make sense for us to come together and engage in conversations about challenges of faith as well as what it means to be a part of a group that has faced religious persecution or how to balance a particularist identity with a more inclusive American one.
However, because, at least from my experience, whenever Muslims and Jews walk into a room together as part of a religious or cultural gathering, it feels as though we need to get past the elephant in the room of politics in Israel and Palestine before we discuss anything else, it can be challenging to have these other conversations. What strikes me as both interesting and frustrating is that before engaging in a conversation with anyone about anything controversial, it’s considered best practice to take the time to get to know one another, develop a relationship, and establish trust. But when it comes to Muslim-Jewish relations, my experience has been that we try to address the really hard stuff first rather than starting with where we might be able to find common ground and build a relationship – whether it’s how holidays conflict with the academic calendar, dietary restrictions, how one makes the decision to wear religious garb or not when one is the minority, parental pressures to date/marry someone of the same religion. This is not where most Muslim/Jewish dialogues start – they jump straight to the politics in Israel and Palestine.
Without ignoring the need to talk about those things that are most difficult, a better place to begin would be to have a conversation about what each person values, what it means to have a homeland, what their tradition teaches about having power, what their personal connection to the land in question is.
But in order for this to happen, both Jews and Muslims need to be able to take a step back from the rhetoric and engage in personal reflection to be able to answer these questions for themselves, something that is rarely done because people are too busy fighting for what they feel is so close to being lost. Perhaps if we were to have these values-based conversations, we could move past the fear and begin to hear the experience of the other, to validate it as a real, lived human experience. From here, we could build relationships and support one another as members of minority groups in this country.
This would be a huge help toward addressing a general challenge of working with college students – a lack of institutional memory. My experience of working to establish Muslim-Jewish relations at UF have started with a smile here, an introduction there. A sort of nervous hesitation as we begin to speak. I’m so aware of the differential in powerdynamics, and yet I don’t have a counterpart to speak with from the Muslim community on campus.
My sense from the Muslim students when they first meet me is that they’re not really sure why I’m taking the time to speak with them. They are wary of me. I don’t necessarily blame them. On a campus with evangelical ministers proselyting in the quad during passing periods and a strong pro-Israel delegation, what good could they expect from a religious outsider with authority speaking to them? And yet…they smile, tell me about an interfaith program they are thinking of putting together, ask me about my role on campus.
I make it a point of stopping by the Islam on Campus table when I’m walking through that part of campus. I’ve asked myself what my objective is during these interactions, and what I’ve concluded is that I want there to be a relationship between Muslims and Jews on campus. The Campus Multifaith Cooperative allows me to speak regularly and build relationships with a dozen or so religious leaders, but because there is no staff member that is a part of a national organization working with Islam on Campus, an organization whom the university could hold accountable if necessary, they are not at the table.
And so, I find myself in the position of needing to actively seek out the relationships, so we can be in conversation, so I know who to direct my student leaders to if an opportunity presents itself. I feel a pressure to develop these relationships quickly, so that, despite the lack of full-time staff at the nearby mosque and the quick turnover of leaders that is inherent on a college campus, these relationships will be passed down to next year’s leaders and I am not beginning at square one again in the fall.
Because I have been greeted warmly, I continue to pursue the forming of a relationship. Recently, there was a bill brought up in the student Senate, a preemptive anti-BDS bill. I attended the presentation as a spectator. Many of the students I had met through Islam on Campus were there, and though the tension in the air was palpable, when I saw students I knew, regardless of their religion or politics, I greeted them. And they returned my greeting. A small thing, perhaps but an important one. For if we can’t greet one another, even when we are standing on opposite ends of the table, we have no hope in engaging in a productive conversation.
Pirkei Avot, a Jewish collection of wisdom sayings, teaches that ???? ?? ?? ???? ???? ???? ???? (people should greet every person with a cheerful countenance). May we continue to greet each and every person we meet, regardless of their beliefs, with a cheerful countenance as we strive to build and deepen our relationships with one another. And may this enable us to learn from one another as we strive to strengthen our own religious and cultural communities.
Gail Swedroe, the assistant director and campus rabbi at University of Florida Hillel, is a member of the Hartman Fellowship for Campus Professionals . This article is adapted from remarks she made as part of The Pope John Paul II Lecture on Interreligious Understanding on The Future of Judaism and Islam on America’s Campuses at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America on February 18, 2014.

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