Rutgers Hillel president Avi Smolen, center, is joined by Natasha Piracha, vice president of the Muslim Student Association at Rutgers, and David Fricke, the Muslim chaplain at Rutgers, holding his son, during the Oct. 30 interfaith dialogue.
Photos by Debra Rubin
November 6, 2008
In what both sides hope will be the first of many interfaith encounters, Muslims and Jews at Rutgers University packed a student lounge in New Brunswick to discuss how they view dating, religious holidays, and food prohibitions.
At the Oct. 30 program, arranged by Rutgers Hillel and the Muslim Student Association, there were male students in yarmulkes and female students wearing hijabs, the traditional Muslim head scarves.
As students sat in same-sex circles of about 10, they discussed questions from a preprinted sheet that included the differences — and similarities — between kosher and halal dietary laws and the faiths’ respective Sabbath prohibitions. Jewish students cleared up confusion over the different denominations of Judaism and their different beliefs.
‘We all share a belief in God, and it is time for these God-conscious students to get together.’
“How many times a day do you pray?” asked one Jewish student.
“Why can’t you drive a car on the Sabbath?” asked a Muslim.
The discussion was often punctuated by laughter as the two groups sought to understand each other. Indeed, when the 90-minute program ended, many stayed to continue the discussion or made plans to meet at another time for coffee.
“This is just such a great turnout,” said Natasha Piracha of North Brunswick, vice president of the MSA at Rutgers.
She said initially just over 100 seats had been set up at the Rutgers Student Activities Center, “but people just kept coming and coming.”
The senior said there were about 4,000 Muslim students at Rutgers and 250-300 students active in the Muslim association. Rutgers has about 5,000 Jewish undergrads and 1,000 graduate students.
Rutgers Hillel president Avi Smolen said he and Piracha got to know each other through the Cap and Skull Society, an honorary club made up of 18 seniors.
“She was the only Muslim and I was the only active Jewish member, so she and I would talk and we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to come together?’” said the New Milford resident.
Although neither knew what to expect, Smolen said, “I definitely see this as a new beginning, a new chapter in Muslim-Jewish relations at Rutgers.”
After the program, Rabbi Esther Reed, director of Jewish life at Hillel, said, “Hillel is an organization that seeks ways to empower and support students, and this is exactly the kind of activity Hillel seeks to foster.”
“I would love to be part of future activities,” she said.
Muslim student Farah Chaudhry of Bergenfield, left, chats with Miriam Leichtman, an Orthodox Jewish student from Edison, after the Muslim-Jewish interfaith dialogue at Rutgers.
David Fricke, the Muslim chaplain at Rutgers, said the idea behind the evening was “to put the faith back in interfaith dialogue.”
He said too often such discussions are “too fluffy,” adding, “We all share a belief in God and it is time for these God-conscious students to get together.”
“We have often found that when Muslim students learn about other faiths it helps to strengthen their own faith,” said Fricke.
Juli Goodman, a Jewish freshman from Wayne, said she found the similarities between Islam and Judaism “remarkable.”
“I found a lot of commonalities in the traditions,” she said.
Dinah Jammal, a first-year student from North Brunswick, said that as a Muslim, she was fascinated by the Jewish concept of life and death.
“I thought the idea of Jews living for now, while in Islam we think more of the afterlife, was really interesting,” she said.
Sam Weiner, a freshman from Paramus wearing a yarmulke, said he thought the program helped each side understand the spirituality of the other.
“This was just great,” he added.