A hijabi Muslim and a Modern Orthodox Jew walking toward the White House (letter to the editor)

The scene was shocking, surprising and strange to people in D.C. Some stopped and stared, others started walking backward so they could get a better look at us. From pedestrians to drivers and taxi riders it was the same reaction. The question that many were probably asking themselves, how did a Jewish guy (wearing a kappa) and a short Muslim woman (in a hijab) ended up touring Washington, D.C.?

We’re two of the 500 students from the U.S. and Canada that applied and the 200 that were accepted to the Interfaith Leadership Institute, an intensive training program sponsored by the Interfaith Youth Core and the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. It is designed to give “student leaders and campus allies the vision, knowledge and skills necessary to lead interfaith and community service initiatives on campus.”

We were not sure what to expect when we arrived but it was made very clear from our first session hosted at the White House that we were in for the project of our lifetime. The students selected to attend were not new to leadership or to work that is intended to change the world. The students and allies represented people from all faiths and some who were atheist.

The students were not new to interfaith work, while some were there to get the tools to start interfaith programs in their school, many wanted to improve their existing programs. Examples include: Greg from University of Illinois who helped organize 5,000 volunteers from across religions to pack more than one million meals in ten hours for the victims of Haiti’s earthquake; Talia from University of Maryland who helped start a dialogue group for Muslim and Jewish female students after having trouble not finding an organization to meet their needs. Or my Orthodox friend mentioned earlier, Ben who was the only Canadian in the group. Ben and two Muslim students started The Tzedaka-Sadaqah Project (Hebrew & Arabic words for charity) after finding that their Hillel and MSA didn’t meet their needs. Now the project is in nine Canadian campuses and spreading to the USA. There are many more stories like this. Aside from meeting impressive people and forming great friendship, and long days of training we also experience a Shabbat Dinner followed by Magherb prayer on Friday; Hindu, Buddhist, and Humanist reflections on Saturday and a Christian reflection on Sunday.

Each school made a commitment at the end of the session and posted it on our facebook group ‘Better Together’. As Annie Hakim put it: “True pluralism in the U.S. cannot be recognized as solely the existence diversity, plurality, or tolerance. Pluralism must actualize within the U.S. through regular and active engagement among individuals with diverse religious perspectives. As a result of ongoing engagement, collective activism will ensue to fight extremism by promoting love, non-violence, & the common good of community. We don’t need to give up what we believe to respect and engage others with different belief systems. Toleration is not enough to combat extremism, engagement & sincere acceptance of diverse belief systems is the only tool we have to generate a world of peaceful co-existence and mutual respect. The acceptance and engagement of the diverse youth of today is what will be responsible for our domestic and international constructs of peace for tomorrow. GVSU WILL BE AT THE FOREFRONT OF THIS STUDENTLED INTERFAITH MOVEMENT.”

Annie Hakim and I received the training to start this project at GVSU and we’re sure that we have one of the best campuses to start an interfaith program at. We’re also hoping that many of you will join us in the great work that will be taking place from now until the end of the school year.

Petra Alsoofy

Vice President

Peter Cook Leadership Academy