By Jody Steinberg

Raised in a close-knit Islamic family and community, Asma Hajjaj never had a meaningful interaction with a Jewish person

“We’re not against Jews of any kind, but you grow up in an environment of distrust,” she said, alluding to the culturally entrenched division between Palestinians and Israelis.

When her mosque invited her to attend an interfaith program with Jewish teens at their synagogue, which is housed in a Jewish high school, she was wary. But she attended, she said, because “I wanted to interact with them and kind of see if this hate could go away.”

Nearly 40 teens from The Roswell Community Masjid, Congregation Or Hadash of Sandy Springs and Emory University’s Children of Abraham gathered for the program, which, for many, was their first meaningful interaction with members of differing faiths. It was also an eye-opening experience for participants. Some discovered they have more in common than they realized.

“We focused on similarities more than the differences,” Hajjaj said. “There are so many similarities most of us didn’t know.”

The similarities the found were both great and small: Islam and Judaism both follow a lunar calendar; religious holidays, family, tradition, meals and community service are integral to each; and many adherents of each faith had experienced some form of Islamaphobia or anti-Semitism.

When Rabbi Analia Bortz, who organized and facilitated the program with Bassem Fakhoury, a lay leader from the mosque, asked the group who their father is, they answered in unison, “Abraham, Ibrahim.”

“It was absolutely amazing,” Bortz said. “To see them come with all the barriers and prejudices and find you have so many wonderful things in common. They clicked so easily. We told them “we are coming here to respect our differences and embrace our similarities,’ and it worked so well.”

More than 200 mosques and synagogues in 22 countries took part Nov. 5-7 in the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding Weekend of Twinning, a program designed to plant seeds of peace between Jewish and Muslim groups. Bortz and Fakhoury discovered they share a passion for promoting interfaith relations; the environment, community service and youth education. While both have spoken before other congregations to increase understanding of their own faiths, they wanted to engage young people for this year’s Twinning Weekend.

Emory student and Or Hadash member Jessica Ginsburg, who participated in the interfaith Peace by Piece program as a student at The Weber School Jewish high school, is a co-chair of Children of Abraham, a Muslim-Jewish dialog group at Emory. The group this year has hosted evening meal and prayers for Ramadan, a Muslim holiday, as well as a party for Sukkot, a Jewish holiday. Ginsburg eagerly accepted Bortz’ invitation to participate in the Twinning Weekend.

“It was a phenomenal program,” said Ginsburg. “Rabbi Bortz and Mr. Fakhoury did a wonderful job of facilitating the program and allowing us to draw similarities between the two faiths. I spoke to a Lebanese girl and we instantly bonded over the discussion. Everyone seemed to really enjoy it.”

The program – a 90-minute icebreaker followed by a trip to Big Tree Nature Preserve in Sandy Springs to plant a symbolic tree together – was so successful that all involved agreed to meet again regularly.

Bortz and Fakhoury are already planning a list of future programs, including a movie on arranged marriages and a winter service project.

“A lot of our youth want to participate in demystifying Islam, presenting a better face and letting others know that, as a community, we have the same concerns as all teens and parents,” Fakhoury said. “By keeping the focus on common ground – instead of politics – the event went better than anyone expected. As we share meals and laugh … that’s when you really get to know the other person.”

Maybe then, he added, they could broach more difficult subjects.

“I’ve never felt that welcome before,” said Hajjaj, who wants to bring Muslims and Jews from her school to the next event. “We’re all normal human beings. The stereotypes that we’ve grown up with, the media and propaganda just divide us. This will help us understand where all the stereotypes come from.”

Bortz said the enthusiasm and camaraderie of the group inspired her like few things she’s done before. She said that when the program neared its end, the students spent the last few minutes together swapping phone numbers and FaceBook pages.

“I very pleased with what happened and am very hopeful about what will happen,” she said.” Now we have a critical mass that is really interested and kids will spread the word and bring friends. It’s just a little spark of light right now, but I really think we can change the future.”

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.