December 29, 2006
by Debra Rubin
If Muslims and Jews — along with a Christian, an agnostic, and a Hindu — can get along under one roof there is hope that there can be peace and coexistence in the Middle East.
That was the message brought to Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick Dec. 12 by two students, one Muslim and one Jewish, who live in the Middle East Coexistence House on the campus of Douglass College in New Brunswick.
The two — Danielle Josephs, a Jewish senior from Teaneck, and Nadia Sheikh, a sophomore Muslim from Weehawken — came at the invitation of the synagogue, which had collected toys for a drive sponsored by the women of Coexistence House. They were distributed to children affected by the recent war in Israel through the Jewish Agency for Israel and in Lebanon by the Islamic Relief.
Both women spoke of coming to the realization that interfaith dialogue and understanding were the only solutions if the people of the Middle East were ever to live in peace.
Josephs, who is majoring in political science and Middle Eastern studies, came up with the idea for the house and proposed it last year to Douglass dean Carmen Twillie Ambar. The house is now part of the college’s Global Village.
“I wanted to help my community build bridges to their community,” said Josephs, the daughter of an Iraqi-Israeli father and an American-born mother. “I realized if we don’t do that there is no bridge to the future.”
Sheikh, who is majoring in political science and Middle Eastern studies, is the daughter of a Pakistani mother and a father who was born in Kenya and grew up in England. She attended an Islamic school and, at her father’s request, went to study in Saudi Arabia. While traveling in the Middle East and confronting firsthand the tensions that divide so many Jews and Muslims, Sheikh came to a conclusion similar to Josephs’.
“I personally chose this religion [Islam] but I knew this had to stop,” she said, referring to the animosities that divide different faith communities. She returned from Saudi Arabia committed to interfaith dialogue.
Rabbi Michael Goldstein said the synagogue invited the two young women as part of its efforts to establish a dialogue with local Muslims. Through interfaith organizations, he had come to know the imam at the Islamic Center of Central Jersey in South Brunswick.
“We may not change everyone’s minds, but at least we will understand each other better,” said Goldstein.
For Josephs, who was raised in a non-religious home, it was a series of events that led her down the path of reaching out to Muslims, starting with the publication of what she described as “to this day the most biased article I have ever read” about Israel in her high school newspaper. She responded to that and then came face to face her first year at Rutgers with “upsetting sights,” including pro-Palestinian demonstrations hostile to Israel and Jews.
Residents of the Middle East Coexistence House include four Jewish women, three Muslims, one Hindu, one Catholic, and one agnostic. Josephs noted that having housemates who have faiths other than Muslim or Jewish has added perspective, since they do not have such vested interests in the Middle East. The cable channel MTV’s outlet on campus life, mtvU, is also filming there and is keeping viewers updated about the house on its Web site.
Although there is room for growth, Josephs said, the number living in the house at any one time would not go above 20 to keep the group “a cohesive unit.”
During the months they have lived together, both women said they have forged friendships and great respect, although the recent war with Lebanon proved difficult, particularly since one of the residents is a Lebanese-American with family and friends directly affected by the conflict. However, the group decided to approach the situation in a positive manner through its toy drive.
The effort will “help children in the area whether they were Jewish or Muslim,” said Josephs, who added that over 600 toys have been collected.
Josephs recalled contacting every synagogue in the area asking for help and received responses that ranged from lukewarm to enthusiastic. However, she was taken aback when one rabbi told her that holding the drive was ill-advised since the Muslim children would only grow up to be terrorists.
“He told me he wasn’t going to put toys in the hands of terrorists,” said Josephs. “We all have our biases, but this is part of solving the crisis. We recognize there is suffering on both sides.”
Sheikh explained that many of the difficulties stem from the way the two sides view the Middle East. While Jews see Israelis as the real victims, Muslims see the Palestinians as suffering far more. To gain more of an understanding of the Jewish side she took a course, The History of Zionism at Rutgers, this semester. The course included reading a 450-page book.
The experience taught Sheikh about the deep historical and religious roots that led to the establishment of a Jewish homeland and the role the Holocaust played in Israel’s formation, among other things.
“I understand that it’s not just a piece of land,” said Sheikh, who referred to synagogues as “shuls” throughout the course of the program. “I didn’t know the history of Judaism and why Jews believe this is their land…. I understand both sides. I learned it isn’t two-sided; it is 20-sided.”
However, Sheikh dispelled any thoughts that the women of the Coexistence House discuss only the Middle East and other religious issues.
In response to an audience query about other items of discussion, she quickly added, “Boys.” When the women pressed, she again reiterated with a laugh and an emphatic hand gesture, “Boys.”