Jewish, Muslim students build bridges while fighting rages in Middle East

Jewish, Muslim students build bridges while fighting rages in Middle East

As fighting raged between the Jewish state and militant Islamist groups in the Gaza Strip, Jewish students and members of the Muslim Students Association at the University of Pittsburgh came together at the Hillel Jewish University Center.

I was convinced, and worried, that their conversation, meant to foster a lasting relationship, would spiral into an argument over current events and politics.

Happily, I was proven incorrect.

The two groups were brought together as part of the Weekend of Twinning, an international initiative seeking to bring young Muslims and young Jews together to foster communication, understanding, reconciliation and eventually friendship. The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding sponsored the program.

Aaron Weil, executive director and CEO of Hillel JUC, led the conversation. He drew on his experiences as a public relations professional in Israel, where he lived for over a decade.

Weil talked about working with a man in Ramallah on a project with Major League Baseball after learning that he was a committed Washington Redskins fan and bonding over football. Weil also talked about becoming friends with an Egyptian groom-to-be who invited him to join his party on a train from Cairo to Alexandria.

What Weil took from these experiences is that people can make connections with each other by removing space; that it is much easier to understand and to bridge the gaps between each other if people make the effort to come together and talk.

The next speaker, Pitt sophomore and MSA President Jasmine Kashkoush, chose to speak about her choice to wear a scarf — she made it clear that it was a choice — which is meant to be a sign of modesty and humility.

Here a similarity was discovered between Islam and Judaism, where Weil noted that Kashkoush’s scarf, known as a hijab, was similar in meaning to a tallit worn by a Jewish man. This was only the first of many similarities noted during the hour-long conversation.

An Egyptian student from Carnegie Mellon University, a self-described “Orthodox Muslim,” said that his beard was the male equivalent of the hijab. It is meant to remind him to be modest and humble.

The only male member of MSA in attendance with a beard, he hinted at another similarity between Judaism and Islam: a difference in interpretation of the laws that the Bible sets forth. Just as Jews have different movements — Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox — Muslims have different schools of thought within Sunni and Shia traditions. This spectrum was evident in the variety in appearance of the members of MSA who came to participate in the conversation; some women wore hijabs and some did not, one man had a beard and most did not.

That Muslims can interpret the Koran differently among themselves may come as a surprise to some who see Muslims defined by their most common media portrayal – the Islamist militant with a very strict, almost literal interpretation of the Koran and of sharia law.

Possibly, the only more striking similarity than their wide spectra of interpretations and practices is the recognition among both the Jewish and Muslim attendees that they are ambassadors for their religions in a country in which they are both very small minorities.

This diplomatic responsibility might be more pronounced for the members of the MSA. Because of the physical responsibilities that some Muslims take on, Muslims can be more readily identified than Jews and because of the distrust of Islam as a whole in America today, the Muslim students felt a responsibility to make sure that they do all that they can to represent Islam as best as possible.

Both Muslim and Jewish students believed that this responsibility is to be balanced, however.

While each student is proud of his or her faith, they are just as proud of being American. Each student believed that they should be able to identify as Jewish or Muslim and still enjoy a spot in the American melting pot.

I asked Kashkoush why she thought it was important for MSA to participate in Twinning Weekend.

People tend to focus only on their faith and rarely consider others’, she said. She enjoys learning about other faiths. It helps to gain understanding, she said, especially when discussing the more tense issues.

It was clear that I was not the only one with Israel and Gaza on my mind.

(Sam Lapin, a Chronicle correspondent and Hillel JUC intern, can be reached at