Jared Sapolsky is a member of Tribe, a group that empowers young Jews to build community in the the great New York area. Below are his reflections on his first trip to Kosovo for the Interfaith Kosovo conference this past week.
I spent the last ten days traveling through Europe. Although my group managed to spend time in six different countries, our trip came about because of an invitation to the annual Interfaith Kosovo conference, which has been nurtured by Kosovo's government. In short, it was incredible.
As Americans, we sometimes judge prematurely, without the fuller set of facts. Worse, we use a tone that suggests our opinions are interchangeable with the facts. In the days leading up to this trip, the New York Times ran a front page article that highlighted the influence that Persian Gulf countries had in Kosovo, and a tiny section of society that had actually joined extremist groups abroad. After reluctantly reading the piece, I decided to pay it no mind and see for myself.
Sitting here on a plane over the Atlantic, on my way home to New York, my favorite memories of the trip are not from Dubrovnik and they are not from Vienna. The parts of these past 10 days that will undoubtedly stay with me forever are those from Pristina, Kosovo's capital. I still can't believe that Acting Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi came to personally welcome our group before the start of the conference and continued to acknowledge us in the hallways and seek our opinions. I can't believe that his staff made us feel so at home and that we got to meet not one, but two Nobel Prize winners. I can't believe that a majority-Muslim country has so embraced Americans and Jews -- and that I felt comfortable publicly sharing and talking about my identity with all whom I met.
From the moment we arrived in Kosovo, we were greeted by the Foreign Ministry officials who booked our travel as if we were long last family members. There was an immediate friendship between Tribe members and Interfaith Kosovo conference participants from around the world. It wasn't for show and translated quickly into long evenings of revelry and deep conversation. Because of the natural bond between Interfaith Kosovo's leaders and our own, Tribe saw aspects of Kosovo that we could not have otherwise.
To my surprise, no matter where the participants lived, from Finland to the United Arab Emirates, everyone I spoke to had glowing, firsthand experiences about Israel and Jewish hospitality to share. They genuinely understood Jewish culture and history -- and made me want to learn more about Kosovo, the Balkans, and Albanian history.
I left the conference with my eyes newly opened and with renewed hope for the future. I also came away more puzzled than ever about the negative press Kosovo had received recently. Why should Kosovo be criticized so disproportionately, when it is such a staunch supporter of America? In a time where we a seeking out Muslim allies, a friend during gloomy times, here is a country with a population that is 80% Muslim that genuinely and overwhelmingly loves us. There is a statue of Bill Clinton standing in the center of town! Kosovo has its own Holocaust memorial outside of the parliament building, despite a tiny Jewish population. I found that far more English was spoken in Pristina than in Vienna. In its fifth year, the Interfaith Conference in Kosovo had its largest turnout yet (nearly 300 people!), making it among the most important interfaith conferences in the world.
Kosovo is so far ahead of so many other countries and a natural majority-Muslim ally to the United States. It has a young population, whose average age is 28, and a bright future ahead. We tend to judge our friends more harshly than our enemies. We would be better served giving others the benefit of the doubt.
There's nothing like being part of a Jewish group, with a rabbi who seems to be known by half the people there, in a country on the other side of the world that feels like it's close to home.