Stories from other MECH members

Three more young women share their stories about how living in a coexistence house changed them forever.

The Mosque that Changed My Life

It’s one thing to talk about coexistence in an American house; it’s another to sit in a foreign place of worship.

by Estee Atzbi

Recently, I’ve been sorting through photos of a trip I took to Turkey in January 2007 with a group of six girls from the Middle East Coexistence House (MECH). The goal of the ten-day excursion was to observe religious coexistence. I was blown away. Not only did we observe it, we lived it.
Perhaps I’ve been reminiscing so much because I have just watched the newest members of MECH travel to Turkey and back, collecting and sharing their own experiences and memories. They have showed me through their own pictures how they, too, have fallen in love with each breathtaking sunrise, every warm smile, and the undeniable presence of faith that makes it impossible to deny the hidden splendor of living in this chaotic world.

As selfish as it sounds, I didn’t want to share my experience in Turkey with anyone else. I was scared that it would somehow diminish my own experience or lessen the significance. I wanted to keep it all to myself because the trip filled me with a new passion for life and opened my eyes to the beauty of humanity. I vividly remember walking through the streets of Istanbul and Izmir and admiring the hills of Cappadocia; I somehow lived a lifetime in those ten days. The photos give me a necessary reminder of how Turkey made me feel—like I could go home and save the world.

The moment that changed me

We went to Turkey in search of coexistence. Having lived in MECH for a semester by that point, I had learned quite a bit about it already. But did I really have a clue? Flash forward to Turkey. During the first or second night our group was in Istanbul, we visited Suleymaniye mosque for evening prayer. For the Muslims in our group, it was time to commune with God; another moment in the day when outward life stopped and spiritual life was praised. For me, a nice Jewish girl from Jersey, it was a chance to observe a magnificent building and admire an undying faith. That’s what I thought our trip to the mosque was supposed to be—another tourist sight, a pit stop. Little did I know that this would be a life-changing moment.

As I walked through the mosque’s massive doors, I couldn’t help but feel a little awkward. I was a Jew—a Jew in a Muslim house of worship, snapping pictures of intimate moments with God and questioning whether or not I should cover my head out of respect. I thought it better to sit in the back and simply watch. I sat alone looking, listening, and, after a few minutes, closing my eyes and getting lost in the sounds of silence. The leader of the mosque stood up front, reciting songs from the Qur’an in Arabic. I couldn’t understand a single word, but somehow I felt the power of it. I had never felt more human than I did in that moment, surrounded by Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others of various religions, each one of us holding on to a different faith, perhaps a different God. But, when it came down to it, we were there, believing in life, or some higher power, together.

We are not the same people

Upon my return to the United States, I described the experience to a newspaper reporter. For some reason, I said, “We were all the same people. We all prayed to the same God.” I don’t believe that anymore. As I look back at my photos, I see that we were not the same people; we came from different backgrounds, had different life experiences, and different thoughts of different Gods.

At the end of the day, though, when we were in Turkey, we learned to understand and accept these differences whether we believed in them or not. I don’t think that coexistence is as complex as people make it out to be. I was a Jew sitting in a mosque in a predominately Muslim country. According to the news, and all too common prejudices that pervade our society, that visit should not have ended well. In reality, however, I was another valued human being who simply wanted to make the world a better place for family and friends, and who longed to make life a little more peaceful for all people. I think most people hope for that, no matter what his or her religious affiliation.

This is coexistence; acknowledging and accepting all faiths as a means of obtaining peace, and valuing the idea that the world belongs to any man or woman willing to put his or her faith in humanity and its differences. I’m beginning to realize that I have a responsibility to share the power of this message, and the hope I found in Turkey, with others who are ready to embrace coexistence.

Making it Personal

An exciting aspect of the house is its ability to foster the discussion of hot political topics from such personal points of view.

by Samantha Shanni

The Middle East Coexistence House has been my home for two years. I entered as a sophomore and became the Peer Academic Leader (PAL) this year. The PAL is the student leader of the house who organizes events and mentors the women. The impetus for my joining the house came after traveling to Israel for the first time during my freshman year. After the trip, I became involved with Rutgers Hillel. I volunteered at the Israeli Culture Festival and regularly attended reform services. These experiences led me to question the dynamics between Judaism and other religions. I had many questions such as, how do other religions view Jews? What does it mean to be Muslim in America? What are the barriers between religious groups on campus and how can we solve them?

I joined the house to find answers to these questions and learn more about the Middle East; I wasn’t disappointed. Suddenly, I was forced to face my identity. Since my mother is Catholic and my father is Jewish, I had to delve deeper to figure out who I was. I learned to accept both religions and cultures as a part of myself and share this experience with my housemates.

A guide to soul searching

As the PAL for the house this year, I see many residents going through the same soul searching. I am so happy to be a part of their growth. One of the residents entered the house not believing in God. As the year went on, she became more involved in Jewish activities and her beliefs began to change. You can be sure this was not an easy task, considering she comes from a secular family who was not happy with her new beliefs. However, she was able to share her thoughts on secularism and religiosity with the women in the house who represented these beliefs and come to her own conclusions. On another occasion, a Jewish resident became interested in a male Muslim student. It became a hot topic for discussion in the house and many women became more accepting of interreligious dating as a result. Other residents decided it was not right for them, but learned to respect her decision.
The residents constantly challenge their beliefs and grow from the experience. One of my main goals as the PAL has been to help students understand people from different cultures and religions. An exciting aspect of the house is its ability to foster the discussion of hot political topics from such personal points of view. Not only do the residents share their views, we invite many speakers to share their stories and opinions, as well. This has allowed the “other” to be humanized and has dispelled stereotypes.

For instance, the class has viewed numerous movies about Palestinians and Israelis and has hosted a woman to speak about Christianity in Israel, and why the land is important to her as a Christian woman. These classes led residents to discuss the interesting dynamics between different cultures and religions in Israel and to see issues from another point of view. Among other things, the Palestinian and Muslim women learned that the opinion of Jews towards Israel is not uniform. Similarly, the Jewish women learned to appreciate why it is hard for Palestinians to hear Israel not being called Palestine.

Another example of humanizing an issue occurred during a class in which I invited a Muslim woman from the Interfaith Dialogue Center, a coexistence organization, to speak about what wearing a headscarf, or the hijab, means to her. The women learned about how wearing the hijab was empowering to her and why it reinforced her belief in God. This class dispelled stereotypes that women are forced to wear the hijab against their will and humanized the issue by giving the women an opportunity to ask questions of the speaker and hear an opinion from a woman they respect. Reading an academic article about this practice would not have left the same lasting impression.

Overall, living in the Middle East Coexistence House has been a life-changing experience. It has been one of my most satisfying experiences mentoring the women and helping them to realize their full potential as active and understanding global citizens. I always expected interfaith dialogue to be hard, but I was surprised to see how much it can change a person and enrich her life. I am so thankful to have embarked on this journey and to be able to lead my lifelong friends through it, as well.

A Southern Baptist’s First Latkes

Attending a holiday dinner may not create world peace, but it’s a good start.

by Shari Wejsa
Here I was—a small-town, quasi-sheltered Protestant girl, a transfer student from a large Southern Baptist university—at my friend Sam’s house making potato latkes for her family’s Hanukkah dinner. You never know where life is going to take you . . .

The idea was inspired by a conference in New York City for the National Council of Jewish Women. Participants of the Middle East Coexistence House (MECH) were talking about the program and explaining some of the highlights of what we were learning. One of the women at the convention asked, “So, to more fully understand the various cultural backgrounds of your housemates, do you go home to celebrate holidays together?” Well, no, I hadn’t done that. The question lingered on my mind.

When Sam and I returned to our dorm, I asked her about her holiday celebrations: Where do you go to celebrate? How many people are there? Do you get together with all of your family members? Friends? Neighbors? Are there specific traditions that you maintain? What is the food like? How do your celebrations differ from those of your Jewish friends? It was a fairly in-depth conversation, but ultimately, Sam and I decided that the only way I’d truly understand one of the holidays would be to spend it with her family. So, two weeks later, I went home with her for Hanukkah. It’s true that you can’t learn about a whole religion from spending one night celebrating a holiday, but it’s also true that this was a way for me to experience one aspect of a religion and culture that was so distant from my own.

It was by far the most rewarding experience I have had while a resident of the Middle East Coexistence House. I had never really thought about the significance of any various holiday celebrations before. I knew what my family did during Christmastime: the traditional food, the routine of church services, present giving, and eggnog with hors d’oeuvres before Santa’s arrival. But sitting down and reflecting, not only, on differences in holiday customs for other Christians, but also on practices for those of other religions, was something totally foreign. I suppose I had always just been content to accept others’ differing traditions. End of story.

At Sam’s house, I shredded and fried potatoes for latkes. I listened as prayers were recited, wishing I could have contributed, but not knowing the words. However, simply observing was enlightening in itself. I placed several of the candles in the menorah, feeling happy to be included, but nervous about doing it wrong. Was there a “right” way of placing the candles? Was there a technique that I was not aware of? Did the various colors hold significance? My nerves subsided as Sam’s family enthusiastically directed me in the process. They were even gracious enough to include me in the gift giving. As I watched family members reminiscing about previous Hanukkah moments, I saw the similarities in my own family’s holiday celebrations. Overall, it was a wonderful night that certainly solidified my friendship with Sam.

But there was more to it. The experience reaffirmed the empowerment that comes from trying to understand something unknown. Through this single opportunity, I discovered a relationship with a group of people I inherently knew little about. Being able to experience this religious celebration firsthand made me more aware of what Judaism is and what it represents. It also reaffirmed the truth that those of other religions are not that different. It was as if this one holiday dinner, initiated by a simple question at a convention panel, bestowed upon me the perspective to fulfill the mission of the house: to make peace through cultural understanding. Once we open our hearts and minds to cultural differences, it’s much easier to find common ground.
Although I may remain a small-town, quasi-sheltered Protestant transfer student, I have recognized that it is my curiosity, both to live in the Middle East Coexistence House and to participate in different religious activities, that is essential to accomplishing this goal.

About the Author

esteeazbiEstee Atzbi
Estee Atzbi is a junior at Rutgers University double-majoring in political science and Middle Eastern studies. She is heavily involved in student government and politics. Since her return from Turkey, she has studied the language and is hoping to spend her summer there. She gave up her spot in the coexistence house in order to give another student the opportunity to experience all that the house has to offer.

samanthashanniSamantha Shanni
Samantha Shanni is a junior at Rutgers University and is double-majoring in psychology and Middle Eastern studies. She is from Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. Samantha plans on pursuing a PsyD in psychology and becoming a psychologist. Her ultimate goal is combining her two degrees and working for an international humanitarian organization.

shariannwejsaShari Ann Wejsa
Shari Ann Wejsa, 21, is from Wantage, New Jersey. She is in her third year at Douglass College at Rutgers University double-majoring in Spanish and history. After graduating, she would like to teach English in Spain and then return to the United States to be a high school history or Spanish teacher.

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