Avi Shabbat at UA Hillel helps break down Muslim/Jewish stereotypes

Ipara Bolan (right) and Georgia Trester take part in an eyes-closed get-to-know-you exercise at the University of Arizona Hillel’s Avi Shabbat on Feb. 8. (Courtesy UA Hillel Foundation)
Ipara Bolan (right) and Georgia Trester take part in an eyes-closed get-to-know-you exercise at the University of Arizona Hillel’s Avi Shabbat on Feb. 8. (Courtesy UA Hillel Foundation)

If a college student told you that as a child she studied violin with a strict Russian Jewish teacher, would you think that she’s Jewish … or Muslim?

Participants at the University of Arizona’s second interfaith Avi Shabbat were surprised to discover that this childhood experience belonged to Ipara Bolan, a Muslim student leader who helped organize the event at the UA Hillel Foundation on Feb. 8.

Bolan shared this detail about her past during an activity in which students interviewed each other in pairs with their eyes closed, not knowing who they were talking to. They each wrote down several facts about their interviewee. Hillel student leader Navarre Moore then read the brief biographies aloud and the group decided by consensus if the person described was Muslim or Jewish. Interestingly, most of the answers were wrong — including the assumption that the young violinist was Jewish.

“When you’re meeting someone, you’re not meeting a person of a certain faith. You’re meeting just a person,” said Moore, a sophomore majoring in psychology. He planned the interfaith Shabbat, together with Bolan and Shani Knaani, the Jewish Agency’s Israel fellow at the UA.

UA Hillel is one of 70 college organizations participating in the Avi Shabbat program, which was created by the Avi Schaefer Fund to bring together Jewish and Muslim students on North American college campuses. ASF was established in memory of Avi Schaefer, a freshman at Brown University who was fatally struck by a drunk driver in 2010. Schaefer, who served voluntarily for three years in the Israeli Defense Forces before enrolling at Brown, had a significant impact on the conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at his college and others. The fund is dedicated to changing the climate of the discussion surrounding Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on North American college campuses.

While some of the 60 or so students and guests participated in the get-to-know-you activity, others attended simultaneous student-led Reform and Conservative Kabbalat Shabbat services. Afterwards, when everyone joined together for Shabbat dinner, Moore, Bolan and Knaani led a trivia game about the two faith-based cultures. Judaism and Islam were represented by overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. Players had to identify where to put statements such as “Do not eat pork” — in one of the circles or in the overlapping section. Most of the answers landed in the middle, highlighting the similarities between Jews and Muslims. During dinner, participants of all faiths mingled and talked.

“I like to see people of different religions and cultures getting together and seeing that we are all people, all human beings, leaving politics aside, coming together through peace and getting to know each other,” said Bolan, a junior majoring in global studies and international affairs within Asia. Bolan previously served as vice president in the Muslim Student Association, which is not currently active on campus. She was also involved in planning the UA’s first Avi Shabbat last year. She said that the response among Muslim students in attendance was positive. “My friends said they liked it, that it was a great idea and we should keep on doing it.”

Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a freelance writer and serves on the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation Board of Directors and Executive Committee.