Muslims in NJ recruit converts to Islam under the guise of helping the homeless as Jewish students go lunchless for Ramadan
January 9, 2006
When worlds don't collide: Jewish and Muslim teens help American homeless family
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
By CHRIS SAGONA
Aviva Bannerman, a 17-year-old Conservative Jew, has an unusual interest: hanging out with Muslims.
Bannerman, along with nine of her Jewish friends and their 10 new Muslim friends, are out to prove the world wrong about Jewish/Muslim relations.
Helping an American family that's homeless.
The 20 teens found one another through Matt Kamin, executive director of PERC, a Union City homeless shelter, which sponsors Project Provide a Home. Kamin and Amal Abdallah, who bring Muslim volunteers to the shelter to help prepare meals, came up with the idea of teenage Jews and Muslims working together after a teen said she was surprised to find out Kamin was Jewish.
After telephone calls to two religious high schools, Kamin and Abdallah received referrals for 20 teens who were anxious to meet one another.
Bannerman, a Montclair resident, who attends Solomon Schechter Day School in West Orange, knew she wanted to be a part of the project as soon as her teacher mentioned it. Never having met a Muslim on a personal level before, she remembers the first day well.
"When I walked into the first meeting, all the girls were all sitting in a semi-circle," said Bannerman. "Seeing the Jews and Muslims side by side I immediately noticed all the visual differences. The Jews had their hair messily thrown in a loose ponytail or bun, while the Muslims were wearing hijabs, head coverings…some were brown or blue or white and silky…some with rhinestone sparkly looking things. It really makes them look classy. "
She wasn't expecting that some would have accents, she said.
"And I didn't realize how religious the Muslim girls would be," Bannerman said. "But then it occurred to me that if we were Orthodox Jews, we would be all covered, too."
The girls have learned to be sensitive to one another. When meeting during Ramadan, the Jewish girls decided to forgo lunch. To observe kosher tradition, the Muslim girls serve vegetables.
There's only one rule: no talking about politics. It doesn't matter, they say, the girls all want to talk about teenager things such as music, movies and shopping as well as their cultural traditions.
Bannerman said she remembers having an awakening moment in the middle of a conversation.
"One of the girls was talking about a trip," she said. "She said she went to Palestine. And then there was silence. And I remember thinking, ‘Wait, what does she mean?' And then it hit me. I realized she meant Israel. I never thought of using the word ‘Palestine' before. But the next time it came up, one of the Muslim girls said ‘Israel.'"
Aseel Najib of Clifton, a Muslim who is in her sophomore year at Al-Ghazaly High School in Teaneck, said she's gotten used to hearing the word "Israel."
"It's the same piece of land," said Najib. "We just refer to it in different ways."
She noted that differences did not prevent the girls from forming deep friendships.
"There are all these preconceived notions and conflicts that don't affect us directly," said Najib. "But this has given us an opportunity to put those aside and to see for ourselves. I had never had Jewish friends before. Of course, they are perfectly normal. They don't have extra arms or extra legs or anything. But, of course, when we first met we would sneak glances, pretending we weren't looking. But after the first word, you couldn't stop us."
The Muslim teens were curious about many things, including religion, and they wanted to know how the Jewish girls prayed.
"At first the question seemed strange…but then I realized they didn't know we pray out loud together and sing the prayers," said Bannerman, noting the Jewish girls pray three times each day. "So then I asked how they pray, and they told us that they pray five times a day and it's solitary. We pray out loud and they kind of do it in their heads."
What's the best part? Bannerman said although she and the teens consider it all fun, they're getting the most satisfaction out of getting to know one another while also helping a family.
"This is proof positive that Jews and Muslims can work together. Period," said Kamin.
The 20 teens, participating in Project Provide a Home, are renovating a home and raising funds to provide furniture, carpeting and food for a family that is currently homeless. "We can look beyond. I learned this the day I realized that the word ‘charity' in both Arabic and Hebrew is the same: Sedacah.
"As far as I'm concerned, it means the religions are cousins and that we should all work together."
Kamin is proud of Bannerman, Najib, and all of the girls, saying he hopes the effort to bring young Muslims and Jews together spreads across the nation.
He also hopes one of the many lessons learned is that preconceived notions also encompass poverty. "The numbers are staggering," he said. "There are 1.4 million homeless children in America. We ignore it, so they are invisible. But we have food pantries and you would be shocked to see who shows up. It shows we all have stereotypes of some kind that aren't true. But really, we are all just people."
The girls are hoping for a large turnout at an interfaith fundraising dinner they are hosting on Sunday, Dec. 18, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Fair Lawn Athletic Club in Fair Lawn.
Bannerman said she's grateful for new friendships, new opportunities and for being able to help. When it strikes her that her friends are Muslim, she says to herself, "Yes, they are Muslim. So what?"
"Some people were afraid we'd end up killing each other, but it's amazing what can happen when teenagers get together to talk about teenage things," said Bannerman. "I'm excited and I want to show the country — and the entire world.
"And the thing is, we are doing this by taking the focus off ourselves and helping others. I want to say, ‘Guess what, world? Jews and Muslims can get along. Because you know what? We are people and we are doing it."
The girls are hosting an interfaith fundraising dinner on behalf of the homeless family from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Fair Lawn Athletic Club in Fair Lawn on Sunday, Dec. 18. For tickets, call Matt Kamin at (201) 348-8150. For informa-tion about the homeless shelter, or Project Provide a Home, call (201) 348-8150, or visit the Web site www.percshelter.org.
Interfaith Program Improves Muslim, Jewish Girls' Understanding of Each other's faith
What started out as a modest effort to raise money for a homeless shelter in Union City, New Jersey, has blossomed into a triumph of understanding and goodwill that managed to overcome centuries of conflict between two of the world's most antagonistic groups.
A group of 10 Muslim and 10 Jewish girls has been meeting since May to help set up a shelter for homeless families. But the teenagers got much more than they bargained for: a genuine understanding of each other's culture and religion, and the realization of things they never knew about themselves.
"Project Provide A Home" was launched by the Palisades Emergency Residence Corporation, a 40-bed shelter for single, homeless people. It planned to open a shelter next door for families, and was looking for help.
The shelter hosted a group of Jewish volunteers one week, and another group of Muslims shortly afterward. The symbolism _ and the possibilities _ were not lost on the executive director, Matt Kamin, a Jew, and Amal Abdallah, a Palestinian who helps line up volunteers to serve meals.
"We were trying to figure out why our communities didn't get along," Kamin said. "We started talking and said, `Why can't we get these two groups together and do something?' It was that easy."
They put out the word to local synagogues, mosques and religious schools, seeking young girls to work on the family shelter. Added bonuses included meeting people of other faiths, learning about each other, and helping the less fortunate.
The first meeting was somewhat awkward, with all the Jewish girls sitting on one side, and all the Muslim girls sitting on the other, each side eyeing the other curiously, if not warily.
"One of the girls asked me, `How do you pray?' and I was so surprised at the question," said Aviva Bannerman, a 17-year-old from Montclair. "I thought everybody knew that Jews pray in groups and we sing our songs aloud, but no one had ever taught her that. I asked her how she prayed, and they use a prayer mat and it's more subdued and quiet. I go to a Jewish school and I'm surrounded by Jews 24/7, so I was delighted to be able to share about my religion and share in theirs."
Nour Singer, 17, from Fort Lee, was just as surprised at what she found in her Jewish counterparts.
"I had expected them to be the type that wore long skirts and hats, but I soon learned that there were different types of Jews," she wrote in an essay describing her experience in the program, adding she learned that Muslims and Jews share many of the same practices, including eating religiously prepared food.
The girls quickly found themselves focusing on similarities, not differences like the centuries-old dispute between the two peoples over land in the Middle East. The one and only rule for the program: No talking politics.
"That was a rule we agreed on coming into this project, and I'm glad it exists," wrote Liliane Winograd, a 17-year-old West Orange resident. "As much as I am interested in seeing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from another perspective, I like that we are able to talk comfortably without the possibility of an argument breaking out."
Or as Rebecca Heller, 16, of Cranford added, "We could all just sit together, eating pizza and laughing, without a thought to our feuding ancestors or political tensions."
They got down to work, forming committees: one to cook food, one to raise money, another to help publicize the fundraising dinner. So far, the girls have raised about $12,000 for the family shelter that's set to open next door to the existing facility next spring.
The dinner itself extended the intermingling to the girls' parents and guests.
"The tables were completely integrated soon after everyone got there, and that happened totally on its own," said Annie Rose London, 16, from Hoboken. "Everyone was talking to each other, these people who had never been encouraged to talk to each other before and the parents were saying how proud they were of their kids. It was so cool to see all these new connections being made."
There's already a waiting list of volunteers to serve on the next interfaith project at a homeless shelter in Englewood starting in February, Kamin said.
"I made new friends and was able to interact with other people and do something good for society," said 14-year-old Rana Abdallah of Lyndhurst, whose mother helps run the program. "It's easier for us to do this because we're younger and listen to each other more."
By Wayne Parry, AP