By Lea Speyer – The Algemeiner
The head of a new program aimed at combating ignorance about — and hostility towards — Jews and Israel on the part of students from different ethnic and religious backgrounds described for The Algemeiner on Monday how he sees the initiative taking hold.
Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the Skirball Executive Director of the NYU Bronfman Center, said that the Interfaith Entrepreneur Fellowship, which was launched in September at four City University of New York (CUNY) colleges — Queens, Hunter, Baruch and John Jay — seeks to enhance collaboration and cultivate personal relationships between Jewish students and non-Jewish peers who have tended to view the religion and the state of the Jews in a negative light.
“Jews have a lot in common with other minorities, where feeling discriminated against is concerned,” Sarna said. “But out of ignorance or stereotyping, these other groups can make the profound mistake of assuming that Zionism and Jews who support Zionism are the same as white supremacists or people who support apartheid.”
Sarna explained the impetus behind his “interfaith” initiative — funded by a UJA Federation of New York grant — as one he felt necessary, due to the growing feeling of isolation among Jewish students. When he realized it was becoming “more and more difficult to find co-sponsors for any campus events held by Jewish groups, not only those pertaining to Israel,” he said he decided it was a serious issue that must be rectified. It was then that Sarna established the fellowship, during the course of which participants undergo “intensive training” to formulate a plan of action for “challenging and fixing a problem in their current landscape.”
As news of NYU Hillel’s focus on forging interfaith and inter-communal ties spread, Sarna said, students at other New York schools began reaching out to him and his staff for advice.
Dana Frenkel, the Interfaith Entrepreneur Fellow at Baruch, told The Algemeiner that she has encountered little resistance when reaching out to students of other religions “in dialogue and friendship.” She said her efforts last semester included a well-attended “speed-faithing” meet-and-greet, co-sponsored by Hillel, the Muslim Student Association (MSA), the Muslim Business Association, the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the Hindu Student Association.
“Faith-based students understand each other by virtue of the fact that we center our lives on something intangible and beyond total comprehension,” she said.
In contrast, Hunter College’s Interfaith Entrepreneur Fellow Allison Reich told The Algemeiner that to make the effort more palatable to some groups, such as the MSA, which “felt uncomfortable collaborating” on events connected to the campus Hillel, due to some of its “ideals,” programs had to be rebranded as “neutral — rather than ‘Hillel-run’ — to enable everyone to join” without experiencing ill ease.
Sarna told The Algemeiner that while overcoming Jewish-Muslim tension was a key focus of the program, it has received criticism from some Jews “questioning whether we are sacrificing our values,” and others “going so far as to say that we are enabling jihad.”
However, Sarna said, “If we can build social capital with other groups to create a campus climate that is more inviting, then why not do it?”