Students help themselves to an array of kosher and halal food at a “community care dinner” held Dec. 6 in Anabel Taylor Hall. 

Interfaith dinner serves empathy and understanding

Planners of a recent community dinner aiming to bring together Jewish and Muslim students, as well as those of other religions, thought they might get 40 people to attend.

Instead, they drew twice that many.

“We had to start setting up extra tables and chairs, because there were so many people who hadn’t registered who heard about the event from their friends and wanted to tag along,” said Alexander Burnett ’25, an interfaith coordinator with the Office of Spirituality and Meaning-Making (OSMM) in the Division of Student and Campus Life, which held the “community care dinner” Dec. 6 in Anabel Taylor Hall. “My biggest takeaway is that more events like this are needed. People, I think, have a desire to talk to people who, like on the news and social media, you get alienated from or are distrustful of, or you’re just unsure of how to communicate with them.”

A “community care dinner” held Dec. 6 in Anabel Taylor Hall brought together Jewish and Muslim students, as well as those of other religions, to bond over the common experiences of their faith, their passions and daily life at Cornell.

The event sought to help students escape the escalating rhetoric around the Israel-Hamas war and instead bond over the common experiences of their faith, their passions and daily life at Cornell.

“There was a lot of thought put into it,” said Laila Salih ’25, a computational biology major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) who helped plan and host the dinner. “We really wanted to make sure that it was an event where all felt included, while also trying to balance the intense political climate on campus.”

The solution was to create a space for students to engage with each other without any agenda besides understanding everyone’s shared humanity.

“There’s been healing spaces for Jewish students and healing spaces for Muslim students, but there hasn’t really been a space for both of them to speak together,” said Salih, who grew up in Sudan and Seattle and is a member of the Muslim Educational Cultural Association (MECA) and the Pan-African Muslim Student Association (PAMSA). “I know from the Muslim side, we wonder like, oh, what’s going on? What are they thinking? And I’m just as sure that from their side as well they were probably wondering the same thing. … I think a lot of students on campus want that space. It’s just been so tense and nerve-racking to ask for it or to seek it.”

The idea for the dinner grew out of brainstorming sessions led by Ivy Breivogel, assistant director of OSMM, who was inspired by a curriculum called “Bridging the Gap” that she discovered at an annual Interfaith America conference. The brainstorming sessions pulled together a diverse group of students, joined by Rabbi Talia Laster from Cornell Hillel and Chaplain Numan Dugmeoglu from Cornell Muslim Life.

“We really want to equip students to have these conversations and to build these relationships in this community so that the next time something like this happens in the world – and there’s a lot of tension and pressure on campus, and conflict building – that our student leaders would be equipped and aware and already have the community to lean into,” Breivogel said.

Even the food was inclusive, with lasagna, a salad bar, vegetarian dishes and pies and cobblers – all kosher and halal. Students were urged to sit with people they didn’t know, six or seven per table.

Salih and Micah Sher ’25, an environmental sustainability major in CALS, gave brief introductions that were threaded with insights from their own faiths.

Salih explained how, according to Islamic belief, Jews, Muslims and Christians are all “Ahl al-kitāb”, which is to say “people of the book”, meaning they share a common spiritual heritage.

Sher was inspired by Salih’s anecdote – “it allowed people to come into the space looking for spiritual meaning, not necessarily political divides,” he said – so he referenced a portion from the Mishnah, which is the oral tradition of Jewish law, that was suggested by Rabbi Talia Laster.

Sher and Salih also delivered a very modern edict. They encouraged everyone to put away their phones.

“Something that I was very acutely aware of was how social media contributes to the current polarization that we’re seeing,” Sher said. “I specifically wanted people to be distanced from their online personas when they were in person, talking to each other.”

To help spur meaningful dialogue, the organizers provided the attendees with prompts: “Share about a moment on campus when you were acutely aware of your religious (or other) identity” and “How have the events of the world (and on campus) affected your spiritual life this semester?” Then representatives from each table gave a summary of what they’d discussed.

At the end of the dinner, the students were given cards on which they each wrote a message of love and kindness. Then they shuffled the cards, exchanged them and carried them off into the night.

“The dinner demonstrated that our students have the capacity to connect and even laugh together in the midst of profound hurt and disagreement,” said Joel Harter, associate dean of students and director of OSMM. “It was only possible because a core group of students had the heart and courage to commit to sit together, even when it felt uncomfortable, and to listen to each other with empathy and grace. I’m so proud of these students. Our society and campus need more of this courage and vulnerability, and I look forward to seeing how these interfaith relationships deepen in the coming months.” 

Salih said she was heartened to see Jewish and Muslim students leaving the dinner together, “still talking, still laughing, connecting over language similarities, cultural similarities. And that was really what we want to be happening at the personal level.”

“My biggest goal coming out with that event was I wanted the students not to just have those conversations here, but to start to take those conversations outside, to be like, ‘Hey, let’s go grab dinner another time and keep talking about this,’” she said.

The organizers aim to host even larger programs next semester, featuring guest speakers, education around the context of Israel and Palestine and training to fight antisemitism and Islamophobia – and continued dialogue.

“Although we do have our immense differences, which we’re not going to try and change because our differences are what makes us beautiful, we want to emphasize that we are all in it together, and we need to collectively generate solutions,” Sher said. “We can’t just rely on polarizing ideologies to do so. We have to work with one another, connect human-to-human and really form strong bonds with each other before we can address larger problems.”

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Lindsey Knewstub