Never could I have possibly imagined a trip that would end with Jews and Muslims sharing their meals in the kosher cafeteria. Or with Muslims asking me if I am coming to Shabbat dinner on Friday night. Or with Jewish students sitting around a bonfire shouting “Takbir,” an exclamation Muslims use to proclaim the greatness of Allah.
Last October, Sam Krentzman, the special projects coordinator at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, asked me to help coordinate a Jewish-Muslim Alternative Spring Break trip to New Orleans. The goal of the trip was to bring 15 Jews and 15 Muslims together to help rebuild New Orleans.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, we had four learning sessions with Rabbi Yehuda Sarna of the Bronfman Center and Muslim Chaplain Khalid Latif of the Islamic Center, who both accompanied us to New Orleans. We explored Jewish and Muslim identity and traditions, challenges and opportunities for alliance along with our own personal ideas and goals for the trip.
We barely knew each other and many of the students held their ground, waiting to be attacked or criticized based on any religious or ethnic position they held. But the second we landed in New Orleans, we all let our guards down.
The infectious passion for life that we all shared emanated from the group as we began a journey we are all extremely committed to continuing. We started building our community, first by koshering the kitchen of the campsite where we stayed. Jews and Muslims together poured hot water over all the surfaces of the kitchen to make sure any non-kosher tastes that had previously entered the cooking space were no longer present.
We spent the daytime hours gutting homes in Chalmette, La., doing tasks that included pulling out dry wall, ripping apart bathrooms, knocking down fences, pulling out nails and flooring and, in some cases, putting up drywall and ceilings in a home that was being rebuilt.
When it came time for Jumaa, the Friday afternoon Muslim prayer, the Jews sat behind the Muslims and listened to Brother Khalid give his sermon. The Muslim students spent Friday evening at a fundraiser for the Islamic Center in Monroe, La., and drove six hours each way in order to garner support for a cause to which they are incredible devoted: securing a permanent Islamic Center at NYU.
Saturday was the Jewish Sabbath, which we spent relaxing, learning and eating. When Saturday night came around — our last chance to go out — we didn’t care about seeing the nightlife of New Orleans on St. Patrick’s Day. We just wanted to be together.
I have come to realize that our approach to conflict resolution and to bridging the Muslim-Jewish worlds at NYU is not superficial, but rather genuine and possible. I can only hope that our commonalities will continue to outweigh our differences as we build on this trip and share our newly formed friendships with members of our communities.