Since my involvement five years ago in a weekend retreat of dialogue between Muslims and Jews (called Peacemakers at Camp Tawonga in California), I have developed a deep interest in learning about and participating in opportunities for Muslim-Jewish dialogue. For me, this interest relates to a more general personal belief that the more people of diverse backgrounds come into contact, the easier it is to break down barriers. It’s a simple belief, really. If you get to know someone of a different religious or cultural background, it’s a lot harder to hold on to stereotypes about that religion or culture. I think this is a fairly logical and straightforward belief; what I’ve found in practice, however, is that it is actually quite difficult to find a space and circumstance for relationship-building to occur between Muslims and Jews.
Two years ago, there was a talk held at the University of British Columbia between an American Jew living in Israel and a Palestinian living in the West Bank, both of whom were highly involved in peace initiatives in Israel. During the Q & A, a young Palestinian man heatedly challenged the Palestinian speaker for sharing the stage with a Jewish person and speaking as though each had an equal role in the conflict. His argument was that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one side was clearly the oppressor and the other the oppressed, and that fact had to be acknowledged. After the talk, I approached this young man and said, “Hi. I’m Jewish and I don’t often get the chance to have conversations about this topic with Muslim people. Can we get together and talk?” He was more than willing to do so, and a week later we went for coffee and had an incredibly rich and eye-opening conversation.
But this conversation was in isolation, and it only involved two people. If barriers are to be broken, there needs to be more than two people involved in breaking them down. When the five of us began living in the Moishe House last year, I realized that we were in an opportune position to connect the local Jewish community with the local Muslim community. Through a Vancouver Rabbi we knew who was involved in dialogue efforts between Muslims and Jews, we got connected to an already existing project called Muslim-Jewish Feed the Hungry. This project brings together Jews and Muslims on a monthly basis at First United Church in the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s poorest neighborhood, to prepare and serve a meal to many hungry Vancouverites. While making food, these groups have the opportunity to get to know each other. The goal of the project is two-fold: feed people who are hungry and at the same time provide Muslims and Jews an environment to get to know each other and talk about politically- and religiously-charged issues. I really love this idea: connect people of different backgrounds—specifically, two groups who have historically been in conflict—in a setting that enables them to transcend their differences and judgments to work to tackle a greater, universal issue (like poverty or hunger).
In November of 2011, Jacob (another Moishe House resident) and I attended the project’s steering committee meeting to learn more about the project and to understand how we could best fit our young, Jewish community into it. The meeting was held at the home of a Pakistani couple who cooked a delicious, traditional Pakistani breakfast. Around the table sat Jews and Muslims of diverse ages, countries of origin, educational background, occupations, and native languages. While they discussed logistical difficulties in planning the following month’s event, I sat there observing the ease with which people communicated with each other, and the respect everyone shared for each other. This breakfast meeting showed me that there was in fact a space in Vancouver where Muslims and Jews had been building friendships and working collaboratively, peacefully, and productively. And they welcomed us into the project with open arms.
Our Moishe House community has now participated in the past three Muslim-Jewish Feed the Hungry events, and it has been a wonderful learning experience for me. I’m happy that we’ve made this event one of our monthly Moishe House events, as I think it provides a very meaningful and thought-provoking experience for anyone who attends. The most important thing I’ve realized thus far is that although I eventually want to be able to have those conversations about Muslim-Jewish relations and the long-standing tensions, I first want to simply get to know the Muslim participants better. I want to build genuine friendships with them because, as we all know, it’s a lot easier to talk about anything with friends than it is with strangers.