Muslim and Jewish Teens Build Understanding Through Dialogue and Action

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May 1, 2005
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Michael and Adina are graduating seniors in Chicago’s public magnet high schools. Umar attends college in Chicago. All three participate in programs developed by the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based nonprofit that combines service learning and a shared values methodology to bring together religious youth from diverse faith traditions to work for a common good. Below, they share their reflections on post-9/11 life in the United States and how teens can work together to promote multi-faith understanding. The IFYC offers safe, collaborative spaces where young people can learn to listen to and hear one another. For more information visit www.ifyc.org.

Growing up in America is an-age old topic addressed by countless books, TV shows, and movies, usually spanning issues revolving around race, gender, peer pressure, and appearance. Until recently, religion and religious identity were reserved for discussion within the privacy of homes and places of worship, creating a sense of dual identity for religious young people. For many teens, the events of September 11th, 2001 shifted this paradigm. Although religion is seen by many as a difficult terrain to tread, youth from diverse faith traditions have begun engaging in conversations. In Chicago, some very committed teens are venturing full speed ahead in search of understanding.

Adina, 17, a Jewish teen, was propelled into interfaith work by the events of 2001

“While the events … may not be discussed much anymore, it is important to think about all the things that can happen when people don’t understand cultural differences and develop understanding. 9/11 has changed people’s views about a lot of things and has affected the way dialogue is done. There is more urgency to it.”
Describing a Muslim girl she met at IFYC’s recent Martin Luther King Day Interfaith Youth Service, Adina says,

“She talked about being misrepresented in the media. Her generation knows there is a gross misunderstanding about their faith. This is going to be the biggest issue of my life; our lives. We will inherit this mess, and how it is all going to play out.”
Listening to Muslim and Christian teens tell stories from their sacred texts, Adina noticed striking similarities. She learned about other kinds of similarities last year when she developed a friendship with a Muslim teen named Aisha that later became the subject for a public television segment.

“Aisha and I shared commonalities regarding religion and gender; difficulties merging secularism with orthodoxy (especially within the public school system); observing and explaining holy days to others. Dedication to being observant can serve to tie religions together.”
For Umar, 18, his interfaith collaboration was driven, in part, by the duty to set the record straight about Islam:

“Because Muslims were involved in the 9/11 attacks, all over the world we were targeted as being responsible. It’s important for us to spread the message that we, and our religion, are not violent. The best way to make the point is through practice. The best leader is one who leads through example. We cannot defend ourselves by just talking. Instead we must be engaged in our community. Prophet Muhammed, peace and blessings upon him, led by engaging his community, and set an example through his service.”
Umar, who lived for a time in the Middle East, sought out friendships with American Jewish teens:

“Because of the state the world is in, I always felt afraid that Jews did not mean well towards us Muslims. But I believe it is better for me to love someone than to have hate in my heart, which is why I wanted to have a friend who was an American Jew my age, whose background was close to mine — so that I would understand consciously who they are.”
Umar recently had the opportunity to engage in dialogue with Michael, a 17 year practicing Jew, while both were making blankets for refugee children at an interfaith service event. Michael, founding member of Muslim and Jewish Youth of Chicago (MAJYC ) — a spoken-word performance team — also stresses the importance of communication:

“To blend all people of one faith, tradition, or political preference as the same is one of the greatest dangers in this post 11th-of-September world, and on the heels of that danger comes writing off one color or culture as inhuman. Dialogue educates, removes barriers, leads to the recognition of the human. This recognition of the human is key…”
The IFYC has been developing creative tools that not only help young people learn to dialogue, but also expose and address stereotypes and misapprehensions within a comfortable framework One exercise involves dividing a larger group by faith community and having each sub-group frame two sets of questions . The first are questions they would like to ask about the other faiths. The second are questions they expect others will ask about their faith. The first set of questions is posed round robin-style. Afterward, the group debriefs by comparing posed questions to anticipated questions. To the amazement of all, the majority of anticipated questions are never posed by the other participants. Instead of dwelling on stereotypes, the teens, typically and respectfully, pose fairly deep questions about the challenge of being faithful in a secular and religiously diverse world.

Exercises like these have prepared Adina and Umar to assume leadership roles in the Interfaith Movement. Both currently sit on the Chicago Youth Council, a city-wide body of 10 high school students and 10 university students, which meets weekly, and is currently doing service in Chicago’s Somali Bantu refugee community. Collaborating on this council and project has not only helped to build understanding across faith traditions, but also to strengthen their own religious identities. Adina has begun studying with a rabbi once a week to be able to answer questions asked by others like Umar, who also credits his interfaith experiences with deepening his faith:

“When I see people like Michael and Adina living such strong beliefs, it strengthens who I am, my identity. I hope I can inspire others through the conviction of my own beliefs and actions. Just as I know, I draw from their conviction and strength.”

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