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The House That a Hope for Peace Built

HouseBuiltOnHopeForPeace.jpg December 2, 2006, New York Times, Religion Journal, The House That a Hope for Peace Built, By Marek Fuchs.

Muslim and Jewish women, with an atheist, a Buddhist and an agnostic included for good measure, pored over their notebooks on a couch and on chairs in their shared college dormitory. Most nights they study together and then visit in one another's rooms to sort out the differences and seek commonalities in their religions and cultures.

The growing relationships between Jewish and Muslim students on the Douglass College campus of Rutgers University is the result of an idea of Danielle Josephs, a senior from Teaneck, N.J.

When she first arrived at Rutgers, Ms. Josephs recalled, she felt a high degree of tension between Jewish and Muslim or Arab students on the 35,000-student campus, which stretches across the Raritan River in New Brunswick and Piscataway, N.J. And when they were not shunning one another, Ms. Joseph found, the approximately 5,000 Jews and 4,500 Muslims and Arabs could turn contentious.

Ms. Josephs, whose father is an Iraqi Jew, grew up attending the mostly black public schools in Teaneck, in northern New Jersey. She said that experience led to the notion that if Jews and Muslims could just be put together and forced to interact, something — and hopefully something good — could come of it. Both groups had their own truths, she said, something close quarters tend to challenge.

"The goal was to get in each others' face a little bit and see if we could work together," Ms. Josephs said. She added, "The purpose was not to sit down and sing ‘Kumbaya.' "

She pitched the idea to the college last academic year to have a house where Jews and Muslims could live together to quarrel and, with luck, to laugh and try to understand one another.

Much to her surprise, the Mid-East Coexistence House was quickly approved as a special dormitory in the Global Village program on the 3,000-student campus of Douglass College, the women's college in New Brunswick that is part of Rutgers. That led to a slightly more difficult challenge: getting students to live there.

Sara Elnakib, a senior who moved to New Jersey from Egypt when she was 3 and attended an Islamic high school, said that when she broached the idea of living in the house with her mother, she got resistance.

"It was my first dorm experience," Ms. Elnakib said, adding that she wanted to join the house to show others that although Muslim extremists get most of the attention, there are many moderates. "But she knows me, and she was afraid that I'd get in very heated discussions."

That was when her father, an imam in Paterson, N.J., encouraged her. "He has traveled around the world," Ms. Elnakib said, "and said that he always learned the most by just sitting around with a group of people drinking tea."

The Mid-East Coexistence House opened this academic year and houses 10 women on the first floor of a larger dormitory. Three of the students are not Jewish or Muslim or Arab, and Ms. Josephs said they were brought in by design; outside perspectives, she said, can help tame passions.

The first weeks of school there was much deference, the women said, with students circling one another and choosing their words carefully so as not to offend. But there was also training in the art of listening.

The women take a class together on conflict resolution in the Middle East, given in the house on Monday nights by Miranda Vata, a graduate assistant who grew up in the former Yugoslavia during its civil war in the 1990s.

Leila Halwani, an American-born Muslim sophomore in the house and one of several psychology majors, said that in the first class, the topic of the recent war in Lebanon came up and provoked an intense argument. The dispute continued as the students went back to their rooms. But, Ms. Halwani said, the women eventually decided that this was "what they do in the Middle East, why do it here?" She added, "How are you going to hate someone if you are going to live with them?"

Another resident, Samantha Shanni, the daughter of Jewish and Christian parents, shook her head at the heat of the discussions over whether Hamas used proper tactics in the hostilities between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and Ms. Elnakib recalled conversations with Ms. Josephs lasting until 2 a.m. on the appropriateness of suicide bombings.

Anything can get the discussions going — the pope's comments about Islam, news from Iraq, even their nightly television rituals. "We've had some very serious discussions sitting together watching Anderson Cooper," Ms. Josephs said.

Ms. Halwani added: "It gets a little hectic. We're not walking around with peace signs saying, let's be jolly."

She said it was a good thing that there were so many psychology majors in the house. "The best way to communicate these issues is with a therapist in tow," she said.

But there are encouraging signs.

Ms. Elnakib said that like many in the house, she was surprised that in looking at the larger sweep of history, in part through the conflict resolution class, she discovered large blocks of time when Jews and Muslims had lived side by side in peace.

And there are small understandings.

Some of the Jewish women learned that the Muslim head scarf was not always a sign of oppression, but a choice. And some of the Muslim women were taken aback by the range of opinions held by Israelis on many issues, a fact that was unknown in some of their homelands. Several noticed how similar some of their family photos look.

Forced beyond their initial detachment by their shared circumstance (and bathroom), the women began to connect.

"There is no stomping out of the room," said Estee Atzbi, a Jewish sophomore born in the United States, speaking of how relationships have progressed, "just clenching a seat or sitting on the edge of it twitching."

What defines success when it comes to the house is an open question. The women have high goals of serving as an example for other students — at Rutgers, across the nation and around the world. They also hope to help train women to take leadership roles to help solve the seemingly intractable problems of the Middle East.

Whether anything so large will come from their effort will not be known for a long time. But at the very least, inside the house, over serious issues, everyday TV-watching, a class about conflict and shared boyfriend worries, friendships have been forged. And complications are increasingly shrugged off, though not completely ignored.

"Sometimes," Ms. Josephs said, "we simply agree to disagree."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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