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Young Muslims and Jews seek bridge to understanding

Images of missile strikes had been splayed across newspapers, Internet pages, and television at nearly any given hour for the previous three weeks, ever since the capture of an Israeli soldier by the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah in June.

So organizers planning the discussion Sunday at the Moishe/Kavod Jewish social house in Brookline knew there was plenty of potential for tension.

But as sunlight filtered through the windows and streamed across the house's wooden floors, Najiba Akbar , a Woburn resident and graduate student at Boston College , was engrossed in conversation with Joanna Goldenberg , a consulting agent from Somerville who sat across from her, nodding, eager to volley back her own thoughts.

Akbar is Muslim and Goldenberg is Jewish. They chatted for 25 minutes about religious fasting, about sacrifice, about their interests in social justice. The women scarcely touched the conflict in the Middle East.

``We only discussed it peripherally," Goldenberg said. ``I think we both understood that discussing or arguing about the war was not going to help us bridge our differences."

Akbar and Goldenberg were participants in a dialogue hosted by the Moishe/Kavod house, the Muslim American Society Boston , and the Center for Jewish-Muslim Relations in Newtonville. The meeting focused on the similarities between the Jewish and Muslim faiths and their commitments to social causes.

Some 14 participants -- seven from Moishe/Kavod and seven from the Muslim American Society -- joined the first collaborative effort of the three organizations to host a dialogue between Muslims and Jews in their 20 s and 30 s.

``I believe that young Muslims and Jews can work together on any issue that is in the pursuit of justice," said Ishraq Ali , a junior at Boston University and a member of the Muslim American Society.

The idea of a service-based dialogue was developed from the work of David Dolev , codirector of the Center for Jewish-Muslim Relations. In April, he and Moishe/Kavod House coordinator Margie Klein were working together when he realized how Klein's organization and the Muslim American Society had similar projects, such as food drives and environmental awareness.

Dolev said that when he thought about organizing a dialogue, he said to himself, ``what a great bridge-building event."

``But something did not feel right with a metaphor that implies that Jews and Muslims are on opposite sides of the bridge," he continued.

He had previously met with members of the Muslim American Society and Moishe/Kavod ``on different days and in different contexts. But it was clear to me from the first minute we were all on the same side of the bridge."

Those on the other side of the bridge, he said, are those who have misconceptions due to the conflicts in the Middle East.

``Stereotypes are highly influenced by what people learn, hear, and see overseas," he said. ``People read about the conflicts and come to conclusions about the whole other community. There are Jews who believe that Muslims are against them, and Muslims who believe Jews are against them. Sunday represented that though this is a challenging time, there is something we can do to take action locally."

To create awareness that social service is a similarity between both faiths, preparation for the dialogue officially began in June.

``When we started planning this event, we had no idea it would coincide with the heartbreaking violence that has broken out in the Middle East this week," said Klein. ``As soon as we started talking, it was clear that we have a great deal in common as young religious people committed to social justice."

There was a bit of apprehension that the recent conflict might change the direction of the dialogue, she said, but it turned out that everyone shared a desire to focus on what they have in common and figure out how to work together on poverty issues in Boston.

Seated around plates of sweets, participants gathered for introductions. The group split into pairs of Jews and Muslims to read selected passages from the Torah and the Koran. For 25 minutes, the pairs shared their interpretations of scriptures from each text meant to fuel discussion of the faiths' approaches to serving others.

``We talked about the different levels of social justice and how many Jews and Muslims respond similarly to their fasts," Goldenberg said. ``Many people look at fasting as an end in itself rather than a time to reflect and change oneself for the future."

When the pairs regrouped, they talked about projects both Jews and Muslims can become involved with.

``Community projects that I would like to get involved with would be anything from working in food shelters, neighborhood cleanups, youth activities, and also worker rights," Ali said.

Klein said she would like to see members of both faiths team up to push for the rights of Boston security workers to unionize.

A date for the next dialogue has not been set, but coordinators believe the first gathering will lead to more discussions and involvement from the community at large.

``Relations are being turned around by real estate issues," said the Muslim American Society's president, Hossam Aljabri, referring to the Middle East conflict. ``But there is so much that we have in common."

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