Muslim and Jewish students met in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life’s (ORSL) multi-faith space on Sunday, April 7, to discuss Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and the divisions that exist between their two communities. Members of the Wesleyan Jewish Community (WJC), Interfaith Council (IFC), Muslim Student Association (MSA), and Muslim and Jewish students who are not necessarily affiliated with any particular faith-based groups came together in the hopes of articulating and beginning to overcome boundaries between their faiths.
The conversation differed from previous interfaith events, which have often revolved around what different faiths have in common. ORSL Intern Melisa Olgun ’20 recalled an event during her first year at the University when Shabbat, a Friday night dinner and prayer in Judaism, and Mahgrib, a prayer just after sunset in Islam, were held the same night.
“In the Bayit, we had Shabbat services, and then we had Muslim services,” Olgun said. “And it was really great, because I got to see my first exposure to Jewish practice—and, for a lot of Jewish students, it was their first time seeing Islamic religious practice. And it was a really great moment of bonding where we got to talk about similarities between our two communities.”
Religious communities on campus have primarily existed in separate spheres, but efforts by the IFC this past year have led to greater collaboration. The multi-faith center was borne of work between students of various faiths, who worked closely together last semester, according to Thafir Elzofri ’19. IFC Co-Chair Yael Krifcher ’19 expressed gratitude for the space, highlighting the efforts of Provost Joyce Jacobsen and Vice President of Student Affairs Mike Whaley in its creation. And, in February, the IFC collaborated with the Wesleyan Theater Department, the Resource Center, and ORSL to put on “Sisters of Story: An Interfaith Play,” which was followed by a dialogue about the play.
The IFC also plans to create a guide for the new multi-faith space—which members of various faiths will write—that will include the timing of their prayers and describe relevant components of religious communities on campus.
However, students note that interfaith work on campus can be difficult, particularly because of Wesleyan’s overwhelmingly secular student culture.
“If there’s one thing that concerns me about the future of interfaith work at Wesleyan…it’s that, difficult as it is to be a person of faith on this campus, where that’s not taken particularly seriously by secular Wesleyan—I think it’s fair to say that—we struggle more between faith communities,” Krifcher said in an interview with The Argus. “To understand each other, to understand each other’s needs, to accommodate each other, and to support each other in the face of a sometimes unfriendly campus. And so, as uneducated as the rest of Wesleyan is about us, we are that uneducated about each other.”
Other boundaries that the two communities must overcome reflect broader tensions between the faiths. Olgun, who will become one of the IFC co-chairs next year along with Ori Cantwell ’22, recalled points of contention that attendees brought up. Some of the primary difficulties named were the Israel-Palestine conflict and skin color, as Jewish students at Wesleyan are often white or white-passing, while many Muslim students are people of color.
“It’s not to homogenize and to generalize the opinions and the construction of both communities, but these are general things that both communities know about each other and are hesitant to talk about,” Olgun recalled.
Though there are particular differences that they have difficulties with, Jewish and Muslim students alike have had trouble with University dining, namely keeping kosher and eating halal, respectively. Students do not have access to a kosher kitchen, explained Krifcher, and although halal options have expanded at the classics line in Usdan Marketplace in recent years, there is not always halal food available for Muslim students.
Additionally, as not all Jewish and Muslim students keep kosher or eat halal, intra-community differences are also prevalent. Maya Gomberg ’22, a social chair of the WJC, noted that Jewish students practice their faith in a variety of ways, while Olgun noted a similar variety among Muslim students. But Krifcher sees one overall difficulty that keeps communities from working together, despite these differences that exist even within faiths.
“We have this understanding, that the University has given to us, that there is only so much room at the top, there are only so many resources available to you, there’s only so much funding, and so we fight within ourselves—within the student body—because we need our community to have its needs met,” Krifcher said. “We don’t see it as part of this larger institutional problem that students are being made to feel that their needs—their absolute, fundamental needs—shouldn’t be met.”
Another conversation is in the works to further explore topics that were brought up in their first dialogue and to more specifically enumerate collective actions that Muslim and Jewish students can work toward together.
“That’s our goal,” Olgun said. “To break down these barriers, and say, ‘Look, yes, our faiths are completely different, and the composition of our faiths is different, and the rules that we follow are slightly similar but different, but there are these similarities that link us together.’ And one of them might be trauma, right now, and one of them might be fear, but there’s also more beautiful parts of our faith that a lot of people don’t shine any emphasis on.”
Hannah Reale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.