On many college campuses, Jewish and Muslim students meet as adversaries, protesting events taking place in the Middle East, thousands of miles away. At Rutgers University Jewish and Muslim students are focusing on issues closer to home, and they are meeting as partners. The Human Development Project is a student club focused on bringing Jews and Muslims together — “politics aside,” as its two presidents claim.
The project started in October 2003, after large-scale demonstrations involving pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups took place on the university’s campus in New Brunswick, N.J. Rabbi Esther Reed, the associate director for Jewish campus life at Rutgers Hillel, recalls a group of students planning an “anti-Israeli demonstration” the same weekend as a scheduled Hillel conference, leading to tensions between Jewish and Muslim students. In the wake of that experience, a group of students came together to show others that Muslims and Jews can work cooperatively for their community.
“They tried to create something new that would bring a positive force to campus; there were many attempts at dialogue before that did not work,” said Reed. “They said, ‘We’re not talking politics, we’re not going to talk about the Middle East issues, and we are not going to solve the crisis. … We are going to put these issues to the side and we are going to learn about each other and live with each other as human beings [who] can do good in the world.’”
In an effort to promote parity, the project has two members — one Jewish and one Muslim — for every executive position: president, treasurer and secretary.
Jennifer Simbol, a junior who is the group’s current Jewish co-president, explained the organization’s purpose and what the members are trying to avoid: “There is no politics, nothing about Israel or the Palestinians. [In Islam] there is something just like tikkun olam [healing the world] in Judaism, and that’s what we focus on.”
There are roughly 60 students in the group, Simbol said. Their activities include regular bi-weekly meetings and sponsoring the “Day without Hate” at Rutgers — a day aimed at getting students to promise not to show any signs of aggression toward each other. The group also holds “cultural fusions,” where guest speakers like Reed or an imam talk about issues common to the two religions. “We provide food, set the seats up in a circle, and have one speaker from each side, one at a time, talk about an issue and how it is similar between Muslims and Jews,” explained Omar Ahmad, a sophomore who is the Muslim co-president.
The organization’s best-known event is its annual fundraising “Walk for Humanity,” a one-mile walk from the student center on the university’s main campus to the dining hall at Douglass College, an undergraduate women’s college at Rutgers. The funds raised from the first two walks went to Elijah’s Promise, a nonprofit organization that supplies warm meals to homeless people in New Jersey; last year the money went to Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey. Next year’s walk is planned for April; the beneficiary is to be determined.