Yigal Saperstein, 21, a Modern Orthodox junior at Queens College studying computer science, was never exposed to people of other faiths growing up.
“I always took my own religion very seriously, but there was a lot of negative messaging about people of other faiths,” said the Long Island native, who attended Orthodox day schools through high school and an Orthodox yeshiva for a gap year before college.
When he arrived on campus, that quickly changed. “I started to meet people through group projects,” he said, describing the partnerships he quickly struck up with Muslim, Hindu and Sikh classmates. “You don’t really understand a person until you work with [him/her],” he said. “As religious students, we all had similar needs, desires and mindsets.”
In the fall semester, Saperstein decided to up his involvement in interfaith work. He became one of eight students on five New York college campuses — New York University, Hunter College, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Baruch College and Queens College — to participate in the Interfaith Entrepreneur Fellowship (IEF), an initiative to train Jewish student leaders in ally-ship and coalition-building with other religious and minority groups on campus.
“The focus is on relationship building,” said Saperstein. “We focus on fundamentals, not politics. You can’t discuss differences until you establish trust.”
The program, spearheaded by Rabbi Yehuda Sarna of the NYU Bronfman Center and backed by a $100,000 UJA-Federation grant, is proving prescient in the wake of President Donald Trump’s immigration ban temporarily barring entry to citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Jewish students were quick to defend and support their Muslim fellows, said the rabbi.
Still, the hope for the fellowship is to create long-term, sustainable relationships between Jewish students and other faith communities, he said. In the past, issues such as BDS, the effort to delegitimize Israel through boycott, divestment and sanctions, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have driven a wedge between pro-Israel Jewish groups and other campus minorities, including black student unions and Muslim student groups. So-called “intersectional” campus alliances frequently leave Hillel students isolated — groups that had no direct connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including LGBTQ groups and groups that protected against sexual assault, refused to work with Hillel because of its pro-Israel stance. The effect has been to rob Jewish students of what might ordinarily be natural allies on a whole host of issues.
Indeed, the IEF was initially inspired by the August 2016 Movement for Black Lives platform statement that accused Israel of perpetrating “genocide” against the Palestinian people and endorsed the BDS campaign.
“We realized that unless Jewish students attempt to truly engage with, understand and listen to other religious and minority groups, BDS activists would continue to gain traction with minority students who identify with the Palestinians as people of color who live under oppression,” said Sara Fredman Aeder, program manager of the fellowship. Several of the campuses on which fellows are now active — including Hunter, John Jay and NYU — experienced strong pro-BDS activism in the recent past.
Now, the charged political climate, with hate crimes against Jews, Muslims and other minority groups on the rise nationwide in the wake of the Trump victory, provides an opportunity to unite in solidarity and focus on similarities rather than differences, said Rabbi Sarna.
“The real test is not, Do you show up the week after,” said Rabbi Sarna, referring to the flurry of vigils and rallies Jewish students attended to protest the ban. “The real test is, Will you stand with the Muslim community in the long-term to fight for the things they want to fight for. Will you stand with the black community to fight for the things they need to fight for. It’s wonderful to show up for one march, but it’s wholly different to say, I’m going to walk the whole journey by your side.”
In order to “walk the whole journey,” IEF fellows were tasked with a “listening tour” to understand the needs and concerns of other student groups. That entailed putting aside political differences, including the contentious BDS conversation that divided the NYU graduate school last year. “Instead of ‘let’s do this our way,’ we want to train fellows to say ‘let’s do it their way,’” he said. Keeping the focus “domestic” is key to overcoming strong biases against pro-Israel groups — Jewish students will still be “hard-pressed to find any kind of student union that involves minority groups that will work with a blanket pro-Israel group.”
He continued: “We’ve had a hard time getting Jewish students to cross over and address the priorities of the other side. We’re hoping to inspire Jewish students with the courage to cross that boundary.”
The IEF fellowship is one of several interfaith projects that have taken off in the aftermath of Trump’s divisive campaign. Last month, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) received a three-year, $425,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to support an innovative program to train campus chaplains to foster multifaith exchanges on campus. The initial cohort will include chaplains on 10 campuses, including University of Pennsylvania, Tufts University, Princeton University and Vassar College.
“Campus is the ground zero of interfaith interactions,” said Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, director of the department of multifaith studies at RRC and director of the project. “It’s the place where students will interact with people of other faiths more than ever before, and most likely more than ever again in their lives.”
The moment for action is now, the rabbi continued. “At RRC, we’ve been preparing students for years for this kind of moment,” she said, referring to the immigrant ban and spates of protests [many of them led by rabbis, including 19 rabbis who were arrested last week while protesting outside of Trump Tower at Columbus Circle]. “We never imagined the moment would happen in this way, or with this much force and power. At this point, the project feels almost tame compared to what we’re facing.”
Rev. Charles Howard, head chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, said learning about other faith groups is only the first step.
“We can’t just learn about one another — we have to ask how can we support one another,” he said. “This goes deeper than analyzing the difference between halal and kosher — it means a real commitment to sojourning with our peers.”
While in the past he has seen the Israel/Palestine conversation “blur into in the Jew/Muslim conversation,” he believes that the “common pain from the messages coming out of the White House will allow minority groups to bond and connect in a new way.”
“There is an immediate urgency to what’s happening,” he said. “Marginalized groups — black, Jewish, Muslim, queer individuals, women — have realized that their voices are louder together.”
Pessy Katz, 28, a graduate student at NYU Wagner and the IEF fellow at NYU, described her approach to interfaith work as “sliding up to difference.”
“We start by talking about the things we have in common. Once we establish commonality, we can talk about our differences in a much more honorable way,” she said.
Dana Frenkel, 21, a communications major at Baruch and the campus IEF fellow, said fighting apathy on campus is her number one priority.
“In the past, faith-based groups have operated in isolated spheres — different groups had no real interest in speaking to one another,” said Frenkel. “I’m setting out to change that.”
The strong emotions surrounding the immigration ban gave her a window into “breaking that silence.”
“This semester’s main goal is to practice third level listening — that means actually listening to what other faith groups have to say, instead of anticipating answers,” she said.
Frenkel, who grew up in Woodmere, L.I., and attended Orthodox day schools and summer camps “my whole life,” was surprised at the ease with which she connected to her Muslim peers. “Faith-based students just get each other — we understand missing school for a holiday and not being able to eat certain foods.”
She described sitting next to a Muslim young woman in a class about language and interaction last semester. “She [the Muslim woman] shared about the marriage pressure in her community,” said Frenkel. “She could have been describing my community. My aunt has been telling me for the past three years that I need to get married.”
The day after President Trump won the election, Frenkel sent out an email to her Muslim peers, many of whom had been deeply frightened by his comments about Islam during the campaign. “The email wasn’t long — it just said we’re here for you. We care about you. We’re thinking about you,” she said. “Sometimes, small actions say the most.”