Who Will Retell? An Interfaith Miracle

The Talmud teaches that Hanukkah menorahs should be placed in the window to fulfill the commandment of pirsumei hanes, publicizing the miracle. The Hanukkah miracles of resilience and faith are meant to be shared -- because the miracles we choose to retell are the ones that come to shape our sense of who we are, and of what is possible in our world.

I'm writing now because I feel commanded -- that is, I feel an ethical imperative -- to publicize a miracle that happened in our day, at Georgetown University, where I serve as Rabbi and Director of the Jewish Chaplaincy.

Just nights before Hanukkah, a small band of two dozen primarily Muslim and Jewish students -- some Israeli and some Palestinian -- stood together for a vigil. Catholic, Christian and Hindu students participated too.

This courageous group came together, in their words: "To commemorate the victims of the recent conflict between Israel and Gaza. ... [To] stand together as a community to condemn the violence that has destroyed innocent lives on both sides."

Students lit candles. They offered prayers. A Muslim student made explicit mention in her prayers of the Israeli victims and their families; A Jewish Israeli student did the same for the victims and their families in Gaza. (The latter, by the way, was a student who just weeks earlier had come to me in distress and shared her very real fear for the safety of her best friends back at home in Israel who were being called up from reserves.) I heard a Muslim student quote Quran about diversity being God's wondrous intention, and a Jewish student quote Isaiah's visions of peace. I watched as an American Jewish student held a flashlight up so her American Pakastani peer could read her prayer, and I heard a Muslim student say, "Amin" to a Jewish student's words.

This vigil was supported by Jewish and Muslim students who, in terms of politics -- yes, on issues concerning Israel and Palestine -- often find themselves at serious odds.

So here's what I really saw that night: I saw students more concerned with creating a common campus culture of friendship and understanding and support than with getting their political point across at every turn and at any cost.

Such a miracle did not come out of thin air. At Georgetown, we work hard to cultivate an environment characterized by nine core Jesuit principles that we call "The Spirit of Georgetown." "Interreligious Understanding" and "Community in Diversity" are two of the principles perhaps most cherished by students. As we push ourselves and one another to rise to those ideals, we create new possibilities for us all.

(Jewish) Sophomore Mitchel Hochberg says, "Everyone knows they belong on campus. The University is very explicit about fostering that sense. ... So, when a dispute arises, you're not fighting for validation. And because there is so much inter-group collaboration, there isn't the assumption that when you cooperate with another group on campus, you're somehow forfeiting your position. You're just cooperating."

Campuses across the country are the home to ever more diverse student populations, from increasingly diverse cultures. At the same time, students are united by a sense of belonging to a common community, and they have a shared investment in that community, a shared pride in and love for their university. Given this, campuses are uniquely positioned to foster not only civility but, well beyond that, they can become powerful models for the rest of us on how to achieve meaningful community in real diversity.

Communal leaders of all backgrounds, both on campus and off, should choose to learn about, highlight, encourage and nurture this potential. At every turn we should publicize and support and fund student initiatives that stretch campuses to be places of respectful dialogue and of deepening one's understanding of the "other." We should put our energies and resources towards helping students actualize the incredible potential that campuses have to be vanguards of new realities, instead of replicas of past and current ones.

The miracles we choose to retell shape our sense of what is possible. We owe it to our children to tell and retell the glowing stories of cooperation between Muslims and Jews on college campuses. Perhaps then their impact will spread farther and last far longer than we ever could have imagined, illuminating brighter paths for us all. And then such moments will no longer appear to us as miraculous. They will simply be how things are, and who we have become.