A majority-Muslim country invites ten Jewish Millennials from New York to attend an interfaith conference. At a time of cynicism and division, it sounds implausible, but it happened to us.
The country of Kosovo, nestled in the Balkans, is becoming an international leader in interfaith dialogue and collaboration. I first attended the annual Interfaith Kosovo conference three years ago. In between sessions, I walked down the streets of Peja, a smaller city in the countryside, and decided to don a yarmulke. To my amazement, I was greeted with handshakes, overtures, welcome, and kindness. People would follow me down the street smiling, waving, and asking if I was Israeli. When I told them I was American, they were even more effusive, seeking to shake my hand and thank me.
Last year, I went back to the conference (this time in Kosovo's capital of Pristina) with a group of five Millennial leaders from Tribe, an organization that engages young Jewish professionals in New York and is a collaborative project of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. They had a remarkable, eye-opening experience. Never before had these rising leaders, all in their twenties, represented both their country and their religious tradition in such an international forum. Never before had they seen such nuance in interfaith engagement. Our group was received with open arms, and Acting Foreign Minister (then Deputy Foreign Minister) Petrit Selimi went out of his way to share his wisdom - and even attend a Shabbat gathering - with our group.
This year, Interfaith Kosovo went a step further, providing for ten young Jewish leaders from Tribe to take part in the gathering. Beyond our gratitude for this generosity, we will be heading to the conference with a new focus in mind: Jewish-Muslim engagement in the United States. Given the hospitality we experienced before (and will no doubt receive again); given the longstanding connection Kosovo has had to the Jewish community, especially at challenging times; given that Muslim-Jewish relations in the United States are so often defined by the Middle East and the conflict; given that we need a new story and frame of reference for our work, we want to learn what Kosovo has done right, which we can bring back to the United States for our own efforts to improve inter-communal collaboration.
Imagine that: a country that just a couple of decades ago was wracked by conflict has become a beacon and guide in a truly fraught area of interfaith collaboration. Kosovo is a "newborn" country that is rising to the occasion and defining itself for the better.
The Millennial Generation in the United States is rising before our eyes, entering the workforce, forming important voting blocs, and driving disruptive innovation and social change. Yet Muslim-Jewish collaboration remains elusive, even within large swaths of this generation's leaders from both religious communities. Though ten open-minded (and wide-eyed) Jewish professionals and a rabbi going to Kosovo cannot possibly change the dynamics between two great American religious communities, they can help us begin to reframe, reshape, and redirect the story towards a more hopeful arc and follow words with action.
We thank Interfaith Kosovo for the chance to try anew and the realization that the narrative of inter-communal strife need not be the only one we bring back with us from our travels abroad.