I’m not a huge optimist when it comes to most of the world’s problems. Try as I may, optimism isn’t my default state. Somehow though, I am an incurable optimist when it comes to one thing – the proposition that if people devote time and energy to getting to know and understand one another, they will almost always emerge with mutual respect and admiration, and maybe even mutual affection. It is this optimism which, several years ago, led me to build into our B’nai & B’not Mitzvah program a “home-and home” series with the middle schoolers at our local Islamic Center. We go and visit them on a Sunday, and soon thereafter, they come and visit us.
This past Sunday was “part one” of this year’s series. The first moments of our visit stood in stark contrast to our visits of previous years, as we were greeted by very visible evidence of heightened security. We’re all afraid these days. But American Muslims may be the most afraid of all. We have known similar things ourselves of course. Once we were safely inside however, the script of optimism and hope played out predictably and magically, even now, even today. Nervousness and awkwardness quickly gave way to mutual curiosity, smiles, and laughter. That’s what a good icebreaker, some delicious munchies, and small-group discussions can do, provide a tiny glimmer of what world peace might look like.
But not everything is predictable. Something always happens that you couldn’t have seen coming. Which usually turns out to be the most wonderful thing of all. Once back in the big circle, the kids had more questions for one another, including about what Halal and Kosher each mean. Halal, we then learned, involves (among other things) the person doing the slaughtering saying bismillah – “in the name of Allah” – before he begins. Which generated the following remarkable exchange (of which I am not embellishing a single detail):
Who is Allah? A person? A God? Who do you worship?
Allah is God. The one God who created everything. Allah has 90 names, many of which we’re not supposed to pronounce, so we say “Allah”.
Oh. And we say Hashem instead of pronouncing God’s actual name. That’s so cool.
It’s the same God.
Lightbulbs go on around the room. Along with that feeling of intimacy that you get when you suddenly discover that someone you’ve known as an acquaintance is actually your third cousin. And the small number of adults in the room know that the world has just changed, if only a little bit.
Of course, we went on from there to talk about ISIS and terrorism. Our kids candidly expressing their horror at what Muslim terrorists have perpetrated, and the Muslim kids expressing their anger at what is being done in the name of their religion. It will be their lot to confront this issue. And it will be ours – the responsibility of our kids – to give them strength and support they need. And here is where it starts.
I’m not an optimist about most things. But in this, I believe in with all my soul.