During the last school year, seniors at the Abraham Joshua Heschel High School, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, met regularly with their counterparts at Al-Iman, an Islamic day school in Jamaica, Queens.
Brought together by the Unity Program of Abraham’s Vision, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting dialogue between American Jews and Muslims, these students attended classes at both schools, studied texts from both religious traditions and, through various exercises and conversations, learned to communicate across faiths. When they met for the last time, in May, they reflected on what they’d learned from the experience.
“Being open is the most crucial part of dialogue,” wrote one.
“I hope that interfaith dialogue is an ever-present element in my life,” expressed another.
One student concluded: “The single most important thing you taught me was that everyone is different, so we should accept one another no matter what. No two people are exactly the same — so embrace the similarities and the differences.”
This fall, the Unity Program will take on a new batch of seniors at Heschel and Al-Iman, and it will also expand to a second pair of New York schools: SAR Academy and Razi School. Abraham’s Vision plans to bring the program to five more cities across the country in 2007. Abraham’s Vision makes a priority of ethnic and religious parity. The organization has two co-executive directors, one Jewish and one Muslim: Aaron Tapper and Gibran Bouayad, respectively. This model extends to the Unity Program, which is overseen by two educators. “Every program that we run is always co-taught by a Jewish educator and a Muslim educator,” Tapper said.
Tapper and Bouayad insist Abraham’s Vision does not have an overt political agenda beyond peaceful dialogue. “We shouldn’t be inflicting violence upon one another; we shouldn’t be preaching intolerance,” Tapper carefully explained. That doesn’t involve erasing differences, however, he clarified: “Uniformity is everyone being the same; unity is coming together for the same goal, but everyone can be different at the same time.”
The Unity Program launched in 2005, when Abraham’s Vision approached Heschel’s dean of Judaic studies, Rabbi Dov Lerea, and Al-Iman’s principal, Dr. Reza Naqvi. Starting last fall, students met two or three times per week within each school and roughly once a month with both schools together, studying a curriculum of religious and philosophical texts — everything from the Torah and the Quran to the writings of Martin Buber.
Sara Hadi, a recent graduate of Al-Iman who now serves as an intern at Abraham’s Vision, remembered those early classes: “We started off by just getting to know each other.” At one early meeting, students brought in objects that were important to them. Hadi took the Quran: “It’s what I base my daily decisions on,” she said.
Rebecca Katz, who went to Heschel, recalled that at the early sessions, the students discussed the similarities between kashrut and halal. “We talked about God, and being Jewish and being Muslim in a more theoretical sense,” she said.
But, after the students had spent a few months getting acquainted, there was still a strong divide in the group, Katz said: “Jews thinking about one thing, Muslims another.”
The turning point came in February, when the students discussed the events of September 11. The Unity Program co-educators, Irrit Dweck and Sajida Jalazai, started the day by pairing Muslim and Jewish students and having one lead his or her blindfolded partner on a walk. “We started trusting our partner,” said Hadi. “That was a really, really great way to start the day, because the discussion was really intense.” That intensity revealed new gaps. “It was not Jews and Muslims,” Katz said, “it was Muslims and Americans” — most of the Al-Iman students were first-generation, while many of the Heschel students were not. Also, Katz continued, “We thought of extremists as not taking the spirit of the religion, but they thought of extremists as [people who were] extremely pious.”
After that discussion “our meetings changed,” concluded Katz. “There was a truthfulness and a tension.”
Hadi added that after that point the divisions broke down: “We had a lot of Heschel students disagreeing with each other and agreeing with the Al-Iman students. “
In learning about another faith, the students found themselves learning more about their own. “You have students being asked questions by the other community and not having all the answers, and having to explore that,” said Bouayad.
The Unity Program is predicated on the vision that young people will feel empowered to change the world when they realize how illusory many supposed differences are — when they see that, in Hadi’s words, “We’re just like each other — just normal teenagers.”
Indeed, Katz left the program with a “feeling that you could make a change in this world,” and that some of this change may have “to come from teenagers — adults have too much baggage.”