There were 19 people seated around the large oval table on the third floor of Hillel at UCLA. On Friday, April 12, the Berman Library (colloquially dubbed the Zionist Library as a tribute to the content of a multitude of books that line its shelves) played host to an interfaith dialogue between Jewish students at Hillel and Christian students from Campus Crusade.
The group, led by Jewish second-year human biology and society major Avinoam Baral and Christian third-year English and political science double major Darren Ramalho, embarked on a journey of discovery based on the first verse of Genesis and a discussion about commonalities between Judaism and Christianity, as well as their views on Israel, holiness and law.
Baral wanted to invite participants to stay at Hillel after the dialogue in order to experience a Shabbat dinner, so “Israel” was chosen as a fitting discussion topic both for its timely significance (Yom Ha’Atzmaut or Israeli Independence Day was on the following Tuesday) and for Israel’s prominence in both religions.
Before the dialogue, Baral expressed his desire that the discussion would “turn into mutual understanding and closeness, and spark conversation.” His hope was to create a forum where people could ask questions about topics that might seem obvious to people prescribing to a certain religion, but may be confusing to an outsider with no background.
“For me personally,” Baral continued, adjusting his neon green socks and situating himself more comfortably on his chair, “I’m just interested in people’s cultures and learning more about people. On a campus level, there isn’t enough collaboration between faith-based communities […] there is so much in common that we can talk about, and it saddens me that there isn’t enough closeness in the same way that cultural groups might be close.”
Baral and Ramalho decided to organize the event after both attending AIPAC and discussing different aspects of their respective faiths. Reportedly, Ramalho invited Baral to attend a Campus Crusade meeting, and the idea spiraled out from there. Baral remembers that after hearing people’s personal testimonies (how they found Christ and became Christian), he was “blown away” and the two decided to continue the interfaith dialogues on a larger level.
The evening began simply enough: each participant was instructed to break the proverbial ice by introducing themselves and sharing about a time when they felt that their faith came into conflict with something they experienced in college. In the interest of maintaining the safe space of the discussion, the participants’ quotes will not be attributed, though they do accurately reflect what was said during the dialogue. Answers ranged from professors stating the absence of God as a fact (or attempting to disprove any sort of divine presence through the course material) to instances when people felt uncomfortable participating in social activities (i.e. drinking or gossiping) because of their beliefs.
Another student shared his observation that UCLA’s openly liberal campus allowed for much discussion on controversial topics such as abortion and gay marriage, where “Judaism, like most religions, traditionally takes a more conservative stance.” He acknowledged that college was a time for him to balance the aforementioned liberal ideas with Judaism “and come to terms with things I accept even if they’re not aligned with Judaism as well.”
Much nodding and appreciative murmurs filled the room.
Further down the table, another student shared that she was no longer accepted by her high school friends after encountering Christ and becoming a Christian, and she expressed: “I feel like they judge me because they think that I’m judging them, which is a weird paradox.”
Maintaining — or strengthening — one’s religious identity while in a college environment is a common source of struggle for most students at the table.
One student shared her touching account of attempting to observe Shabbat in the dining halls when enticing Friday night concerts or basketball games kept her from going to a traditional dinner at Hillel.
“I remember a few of my friends and I, to sanctify the Sabbath, we make a blessing over wine,” she said, twisting her fingers in her hand, “and of course, there’s no wine in the dining hall,” she added, to muffled laughter. “So we got a cup of cranberry juice. And on Shabbat we make a blessing over challah bread — but there’s no challah bread in the dining hall — so we got two dinner rolls, and it was this kind of awkward, clumsy way of still sanctifying the night, kind of being cognizant of what it was, but it kind of felt like I was stuck in between two planes.”
After the introductions, the discussion switched to the more tangible first verse of Genesis: “In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth.”
As the sun set behind the trees, Baral rephrased Rabbi Yitzchak’s question: “if the underlying assumption is that the Torah is supposed to be a manual of life, why doesn’t it begin with the first commandment? Why does it begin this way?”
The group pondered the question, and decided that Genesis establishes a lineage for Abraham (and Jesus by extension, for the Christians) and asserts God’s sovereignty over the world, reminding people that He can give and take. The first line could be read as a call to action, namely that if people do not act accordingly, God will take the land away.
One person brought up the idea that Rabbi Yitzchak’s question related to the idea that Jews hold the letter of the law to be holy, while for Christians, the spirit of the law is more important. The group toyed around with this idea, striving to find common ground between the differing religions’ adherence to biblical law.
Finally, however, the discussion struck a tangent, flowing into a forum for questions, beginning with why Jews do not have many options in the dining hall during Passover. At that moment, the protective barriers in the room fell, and people were more comfortable discussing their particular questions or curiosities concerning the foreign faith. One girl nodded appreciatively, while another rested her head on her fist in fierce concentration, eyes fixed to the current speaker.
Slowly, the sun descended even further, and friendships were cemented amid the discussion. The evening concluded with a short individual moment of silent prayer (“whatever you guys are feeling”), and a few of the Campus Crusade members stayed in the Hillel building to experience either their first Shabbat (this one co-hosted by Bruins for Israel in honor of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, and Bearing Witness in honor of Yom HaShoah), or one of many.
The group exited the room with the consensus that Judaism and Christianity employ different approaches in order to reach the same state of being; while in Judaism, how one acts changes how one feels, in Christianity, it is taught that altering oneself from within will affect one’s actions. The group also reached common ground on the importance of Israel, stating that “it’s really important in both faiths that Israel was given initially to the Israelites.”
After an interfaith dialogue that touched on the importance of the land, the Yom Ha’Atzmaut festivities in Bruin Plaza on Tuesday, April 16 displayed students’ appreciation for Israel. Dozens of students sported their new 65th anniversary t-shirts (sold by Bruins for Israel) and proudly waved their large Israeli flags over their heads, dancing along to their favorite Israeli (and sometimes American) songs. As students hoisted each other into the air on chairs, cheering for their homeland, even the line of protestors holding Palestinian flags could not dampen the mood. It was about pure joy, pure happiness, pure “culture, diversity, humanitarian aid, history, democracy, and innovation.”