There exist a myriad of reasons for Hillel to engage in interfaith work. As a growing number of students come to campus with complex identities and enter university facing a future as citizens of a global society, interfaith work is increasingly essential. Through our interactions with others, we gain better understanding of ourselves.
Jewish tradition teaches us in many ways that interacting with those of different faiths is important. We are commanded to see the Godliness in all peoples and to love our neighbor as ourselves. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel points out, “No religion is an island. We are all involved with one another. ... Today religious isolationism is a myth.”
In 2011, I launched an initiative to bring together students from Muslim and Jewish traditions. UMBC Hillel is housed in an Interfaith Center, where Muslim students hold daily prayer, Catholic students have weekly Mass, and Jewish students celebrate Shabbat. Although students shared this common space, they often did not know their neighbors personally. Facilitating connections between Jewish and Muslim students, in part through a curriculum that allowed them to learn about social change, allowed them to begin learning deeply about one another’s culture and their own.
In 2012-13, students took over the leadership of the initiative, coordinating several interfaith events and expanding our interfaith partnerships to include other faith traditions and several key university partners, including the Office of Student Life, and the Office of Undergraduate Education. The difference in our building and around campus is palpable, thanks to the increased commitment to dialogue and building authentic relationships.
By applying the engagement wisdom that Hillel has pioneered for the Jewish world to interfaith work we do locally, we have successfully built bridges between communities of different faiths at UMBC. Frank Salah ’13 states, “Being involved in interfaith dialogue at UMBC, gave me an opportunity to learn about Judaism from a broader spectrum, and also learning about Islam; it allowed me to see similarities in religious, cultural, and moral perspectives.”
Students at UMBC have now moved beyond knowing one another’s names to asking respectful questions to learn more about their classmates’ cultures and journeys. Increasing interfaith work on college campuses allows Hillel to serve our students best as they prepare to face an increasingly intercultural world.
Cara Behneman is the Acting Executive Director of UMBC Hillel, where she has worked since 2009. She lives in Baltimore with her brother, Ryan, and her adorable Boston Terrier, Stella.