New Jersey Jewish News
Rutgers dorm seeks to bridge Mideast divide
The old adage of “live and learn” took on new meaning at Rutgers University on the afternoon of Oct. 9 as Douglass College dedicated the latest addition to the themed residences of its Global Village the Middle East Coexistence House.
More than 75 people gathered on the New Brunswick campus’ Jameson Hall quadrangle green for the dedication ceremony for a residence that since the beginning of September has housed 11 young women five Jews, three Muslims, one Hindu, one Catholic, and one agnostic.
In addition to living together in the house, the residents take part in a weekly seminar, The Middle East Conflict: Negotiations and Resolution, taught by Kosovo native Miranda Vata, a doctoral candidate in global affairs.
“We live together, we take the course together, and we do joint initiatives together, and we also socialize together a lot,” said Douglass senior Danielle Josephs of Teaneck, the force and spirit behind the new house. “It’s working incredibly well. This is a very lively, very cohesive group of women who are very invested in this issue.”
The dedication ceremony featured an address by Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, and remarks by Carmen Twillie Ambar, dean of the college, and Josephs, a former president of the Rutgers Hillel student board who is majoring in political science and Middle Eastern studies.
“Essentially, I realized that bringing together the Jewish and Muslim communities was really vital,” Josephs said in an interview. “I wanted to create an experience for a group of women, to train them to become ambassadors in their own communities, and to spread the values of peace and coexistence.”
Heated discussions do take place, Josephs added, but mainly in the classroom. “The goal is not to change opinions,” she said. “The goal is to teach residents that there is another side, and in order to have some semblance of a solution to the conflict, we have to embrace that there are multiple narratives so we can thrive together.”
For sophomore Leila Halwani, a Lebanese-American Muslim from Clifton, the experience of sharing her narrative with her housemates has been “really interesting so far.”
“It’s nice to see how we’ve become good friends,” said Halwani, a psychology major. “At the same time, we’re not afraid to express an opinion. At the end of the day, we all appreciate and respect one another.”
Estee Atzbi, a sophomore from Old Bridge whose parents are Israeli, said she grew up hearing the Israeli side of the conflict and knowing that there was more to it than that.
“When Danielle told me about the idea [for the house], I said: This is a perfect way to show that although I might be Jewish and my parents might be Israeli and another girl might be Muslim, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to get along,” she said. “We’re all human beings.”
The experience so far has been “awesome,” added Atzbi, a political science/journalism major. “I’ve never in my life learned so much. We also get a chance to see how our cultures are alike, and it’s really, really amazing.”
Sophomore Nadia Sheikh of Weehawken, a Muslim woman with a Pakistani-Kenyan heritage, was more tempered in her remarks. “So far, so good,” said Sheikh, whose dorm room door was decorated with a poster that declares, “We’ll Find Better Days.”
“Everybody has something to say and something to contribute, but we really haven’t got to the gist of political discussions just yet,” said Sheikh, who is majoring in political science and Middle Eastern studies. “But I think it’s going to be healthy.”
Sophomore Ruchi Gupta, a Hindu from New Egypt who is majoring in South Asian studies and English, said she wanted to live in the new house in order to learn more about Middle Eastern cultures and the conflict that is so much at the forefront of people’s minds.
“I thought it was really important for women to take the step of joining live-and-learn communities like this,” Gupta said, “because if we can’t do it, then how can people in the Middle East do it?
“I think it’s going great,” she added. “It’s very early, but we’ve already meshed so well and learned so much from each other.”
Sophomore Katherine O’Connor, a Catholic woman from Morristown, said she saw living in the Middle East Coexistence House as a way to expand her horizons. “I’m very interested in politics, but I know very little about Middle East affairs,” said O’Connor, an English/classics major. “I wanted to immerse myself in all of this and be an objective mediator in all of this. It’s interesting. I’m sort of marinating in this and taking everything in.”
For two other sophomores, friends Samantha Shanni of Scotch Plains and Janis Rodgers of West Milford, living in the coexistence house became a natural extension of the Taglit-birthright israel trip they took together last winter.
“I think the trip was a really life-changing experience for both of us and shaped our decision,” said Rodgers, who is studying creative writing, philosophy, and biology. “I hope that everyone around Rutgers will realize what’s going on and people will understand what our mission is coexistence. I think small steps will lead to a big difference.”
Added Shanni, a psychology major: “I just decided the issues were so important to me, I wanted to be part of something that can break down stereotypes. People on campus are talking about it. Seeing that people are actually coexisting together and getting along it’s good.”
Ambar, Douglass’ dean, said in an interview that the idea for the Middle East Coexistence House resonated with her from the moment Josephs proposed it to her two years ago.
“It’s clear that women have been missing from the peace process,” Ambar said. “I think fundamentally, for us, this is about women’s leadership in the new global environment. We’re totally excited about it. We believe this is the wave of the future.”
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