Rebuilding homes and faith through Bridges

by | Feb 5, 2016 | Other News

Zoe Siegel and Shanjida Chowdhury, co-president of Bridges.

Zoe Siegel and Shanjida Chowdhury, co-president of Bridges.

I’ve always been fascinated with Judaism because of the many layers of my faith that I see in various aspects of modern day life. With that strong presence, one of the most challenging opportunities we have today is to educate and learn from all types of spiritual and cultural communities.

To gently paraphrase Deuteronomy, “So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” This applies directly to the work my generation must do. No one should feel lonely. In fact, it is our duty to make sure, to the extent we can, that everyone is welcomed because Judaism mandates that we empathize. And, I believe the best way we can make sure groups or individuals do not feel isolated is through open dialogue. We have to talk about the tough, awkward stuff, and discuss why we might feel misplaced in society at times.

In January, I spent a week in Wimberly, Texas rebuilding homes, installing insulation, and fluffing trees from an incredibly damaging flood that hit on Memorial Day and then again on Halloween. The destruction was real and we had our work to do to help. For the past five years, Bridges: Muslim-Jewish Dialogue at NYU has sponsored a service trip. Bridges is a student- run organization seeking to bring together Jewish and Muslim students to engage in constructive discussions about our faiths. Shanjida Chowdhury and Gavi Rubin serve as co-presidents.

Every day we volunteered at a home, talking to the homeowner, building homes and friendships, and most importantly coming together for a common and productive cause. In both Judaism and Islam there is a focus on altruism and giving back to various communities. We were doing just that together. At night, the 22 of us had an assortment of conversations. Some were intense and beautiful with lots of tears, and some were refreshingly lighthearted and silly.

This past year I have doubted my faith, my connection, my practices, and my role as a Jewish woman. I spoke about it some with my parents, but mostly kept it to myself, like a little sad secret. The love I had for Judaism was slowly disappearing and I needed to control it. One night in Bridges, we shared our faith stories. It was hard, but absolutely touching. I was able to share my doubts and my recent lack of connection to Judaism for the first time. As I grow up, I realize how scary this world truly is. And I am not easily frightened. We are fighting brutal wars, politicians are spewing hate, the climate is drastically worsening, terrorism is growing, and people are desperate for fundamental rights. Meanwhile, I continue to doubt and question my faith and beliefs. Over the past year, I have lost some hope. At first, I thought that was supposed to happen when you read the news every day. Perhaps, that is true, but, I wanted to still see the light in the world. My intimate dilemma was received with open arms and some others felt comfortable enough to share their own hesitancy. It was the moment I needed to reaffirm my love for my faith and the people in it. I went into this trip knowing it would be really fun and great to meet new people from different backgrounds. What I did not know was how this trip would change my perspective and inspire me to be a woman of faith.

As usual for me, I learned more than expected. I grasped that I have another really cool area to study and learn. I have realized that Muslims and Jews had more similarities than differences and we are complicated, even though all young. We are thinkers, doubters, peacemakers, and lovers and people of faith. We care about one another like brothers and sisters because we are. We are the brothers and sisters of Islam and Judaism.

This trip has given me a new knowledge and appreciation for Islam; I can honestly say standing up against Islamophobia has always been important to me, but now it is my calling. I have a handful of new Muslim friends that share every beautiful trait I look for in a person. For those of you that could not experience this with me, I hope you can look at your own implicit biases and realize, despite the media’s assumptions that we can live, work and love together.

Judaism is the ideal place to see the light. Judaism is my beacon. I will continue to let it shine.

by Zoe Siegel

—Zoe Siegel is a junior at NYU studying Global Public Health and Applied Psychology. She is a member of Ohef Sholom Temple.