Jun 12, 2009

Jweekly: "Unity Program’s first local grads break down walls of Muslim-Jewish relations"


Unity Program's first local grads break down walls of Muslim-Jewish relations
stacey palevsky, staff writer

Imagine: Jewish and Muslim teenagers laughing together, walking arm in arm, making plans to hang out in the summer.

They seem like unlikely scenarios — but thanks to the Unity Program, a project of the S.F.-based nonprofit Abraham's Vision, they're a reality. The program graduated its first class of Bay Area students May 31.

"I felt an invisible wall between me and the Jewish community, and now I feel this wall has been completely demolished," said Shakeera Shoukat, 17, during the graduation ceremony.

Aaron Lerner. photos/stacey palevsky
Twenty-nine Jewish and Muslim students graduated from the program this year. Students at Berkeley Midrasha worked with students from the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California in Oakland, and students from Peninsula Havurah High in Los Altos Hills worked with the Muslim American Society in Santa Clara. About 100 parents and friends attended the commencement ceremony.

"In the Bay Area, we think we're so accepting, so liberal and open-minded, but we all still have a lot to learn," said Marsha Rosen-blatt, 17, of Oakland. "The Unity Program helped me realize that. It was such a valuable experience."

Throughout the school year, Unity Program participants met weekly, in separate Jewish and Muslim groups, for classes that were co-taught by a Jewish and a Muslim educator — Samantha Witman and Yasmeen Peer. The teachers also led monthly discussions and field trips that brought together the Jewish and Muslim students.

During the graduation ceremony, 14 teenagers representing both communities addressed the audience. Muslim students talked about how they were at first apprehensive to meet their Jewish peers; likewise, Jewish students wondered if they could really become friends with Muslim teenagers.

Those fears proved to be unfounded.

Shakeera Shoukat
"I never imagined that I would be able to talk about [the Middle East] and not be constantly harassed for identifying with Zionism — yet it happened, and now my mind is more open to new possibilities," said Aaron Lerner, 18, of Palo Alto.

In their classes, students learned about each other's religious traditions, the history of the Middle East and the current challenges facing Israel and the Palestinian territories.

They visited places representing both of their faith and cultural traditions — a synagogue and a mosque, the Contemp-orary Jewish Museum and the Asian Art Museum.

During their graduation speeches, they talked about how the Unity Program taught them tolerance, acceptance and how to listen to opinions that differ from their own. They described being surprised and excited to learn about the numerous similarities between Jews and Muslims.

They said they were grateful, privileged and transformed by the experience.

Aaron Hahn Tapper, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of San Francisco, created the program when he lived in New York. He expanded the program upon moving to the Bay Area in 2007. To date, 134 students have graduated from the Unity Program.

His organization reflects the unity he aims to inspire in American teen-agers. His co-director is a Palestinian woman, Huda Abu Arquob. They both spoke at the graduation ceremony before the teens addressed the audience.

"We refuse to believe future generations will not live in a world that is better than this one," Hahn Tapper said.

The program intends to add a third Bay Area partnership this coming fall, which will mean an additional 72 participating students during the 2009-10 school year.

"To live in a country that was built upon the tenet of tolerance I need to be tolerant, and to be tolerant I need to understand," said Meryem Kamil, 17, of Santa Clara.

"Through Abraham's Vision I can now say that I understand the need for programs such as this one and the need for interfaith dialogue because change begins with small steps."

These 29 students have taken their first.