Daily Herald: Inching Toward Understanding

Suburban students launch project to bring Jews and Muslims together

Born in Belarus and raised in Buffalo Grove, surrounded by Jewish immigrants like himself, Jacob Katz grew up knowing little of Islam and less of Muslims.

Television shows and movies taught Sharif Murphy about Judaism, a lesson the Muslim man from Hoffman Estates knew was incomplete.

Naperville’s Julia Geynisman tired of watching Jewish and Muslim students clash, driven by tensions rooted thousands of miles away in the Middle East.

Together, these University of Illinois at Chicago students are trying to unravel the knot of conflict among Jews and Muslims one conversation at a time.

Katz, Murphy and Geynisman are among the suburban students trying to get students at the Chicago campus talking about what they share, rather than shouting about what they don’t.

Called Jewish American Muslim Students, the group brings together students of all faiths for cultural films, Middle Eastern dinners and tonight for a play called “From Tel Aviv to Ramallah: A Beatbox Journey” that chronicles a day in the life of a Palestinian Internet cafe owner and an Israeli disc jockey. By hanging out, organizers say, students may begin to see each other as people — not Jewish or Muslim, not Arab or Israeli — but just people.

“I feel there’s a need for a solution in the Middle East,” said Geynisman, a 19-year-old sophomore from Naperville. “I feel the only way I can contribute is to, little by little, open the minds of students around me on campus.”

With a population exceeding 15,000 students, more than half of whom are ethnic minorities, many experts say the University of Illinois at Chicago is a fitting laboratory.

“UIC had a history of very negative and sometimes violent interactions between Jews and Arabs,” said professor Rachel Havrelock, who works with the Jewish and Muslim student group. Such rancor eased during recent years. Still, a divide persists along religious and cultural lines, a divide Havrelock and her band of students hope to bridge.

“They are ready for this key moment in their lives to investigate some traditional biases they perhaps grew up with,” Havrelock said.

What begins on campus need not stay there, said community leaders of both faiths. This new push by Jewish and Muslim students adds to interfaith initiatives around Chicago and the suburbs.

“The truth of the matter is there are not enough of those discussions,” said Emily Soloff, director of Chicago’s American Jewish Committee.

As the Middle East remains locked in struggle, such discussions grow even more important.

“It’s a good starting point, but it should definitely not be where the dialogue ends,” said Ahmed Rehabexecutive director for the Council on American Islamic Relations in Chicago. “The goal is to build enough trust where the two groups can talk about issues that are very important to both of them.”

That’s where faith comes in.

Murphy enlisted in the group and a class titled “Judaism and Islam: Interactions and Intersections” with two goals: to learn more about the Jewish faith and, in turn, teach others about his faith, Islam.

Ask him what he’s learned and Murphy talks about the importance of Israel as a country and a religious site and the distinct branches of Judaism.

Katz, on the other hand, is quick to share a newfound knowledge about the Islamic prophet Mohammed and a shared focus on one God and one Holy Land.

“They have a lot in common,” said Katz, who said. “They are not designed as contra forces.”

If finding common ground is the first step, then pointing it out to others comes next, a far more difficult task, said Hana Koussa, a 21-year-old junior from Carol Stream.

“There’s a lot of people out there who don’t want to give their blessings on these things,” said Koussa, who is Muslim. “I think it’s a promising thing, but it’s also very difficult at times.”

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