Backstory: A dorm room big enough for two major faiths
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Yael is well known by now at the 1 p.m. Friday Jumuah prayer service in a cheerful basement room at Morris-Champlain dorm, where the Muslim Students' Association meets. Attending her fifth service recently, she jokes that some think she wants to convert. She slips off her shoes and sits against a column, stretching her legs out while others kneel on prayer rugs, the women in rows behind the men. Atena disappears to wash her hands and face - ablutions required before she prays - and then settles in, bowing her covered head to the floor.Skip to next paragraph
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As a visitor, Yael isn't expected to do ablutions or wear a scarf. After listening to the sermon in English, she sits with eyes closed as melodic Arabic prayers are called out and answered with a collective "Ameen." The first time Yael came she could relate because that response is so similar to the "Amen" in Judaism. The service is a restful and sometimes prayerful time for her, she says. "It's a bit of a relief to go to a spiritual service where I'm not in a leadership position."
The daughter of a Conservative Jewish rabbi, Yael grew up attending a variety of Jewish schools and living on and off in Israel. The year before she came to Brown, she studied Judaic texts in Israel. "Oftentimes I chant Torah reading on Shabbat morning," she says. Memorizing the readings the night before, she sits in the dorm hall and enjoys talking about the ritual with housemates who stop and ask what she's doing.
After the Muslim gathering, Yael changes into a long skirt and heads to Hillel, the campus Jewish center, for Havurah, a service where people sing and pray aloud together. Mid-service, Atena arrives and slips into a chair next to Yael. Atena is trying to sing along for the first time. The music isn't written out, and she has to sound out the transliterated Hebrew. When she loses her place, Yael puts a guiding finger on the page, all the while lifting up her clear soprano with the confidence of someone who has internalized the songs.
The dynamics of Interfaith House shift with who moves in and out. Atena is currently the only Muslim out of 33 residents, and Muslims are only 2 percent of the student body at Brown, which hired its first Muslim chaplain last winter. The house served suhur, a predawn breakfast for Muslim students fasting during Ramadan. That kindness helped Atena recruit three Muslims to move in next fall.
Atena is in an eight-year program at Brown that combines undergraduate work with medical school, but she also hopes to learn enough Arabic to study Islam more deeply. For now, she says, it's good to learn about other religions while she's still solidifying her own beliefs. With a smile that never seems to fade, she declares with utter sincerity, "I love it here."
Yael is considering attending graduate school to study ancient Judaism. But she, too, has enjoyed living with people who feel free to probe one another's convictions. "It's really wonderful to be challenged," she says.
To Atena and Yael, there's nothing unusual about their friendship. Their parents support it, and they aren't the first in their families to forge Muslim-Jewish bonds. But they also know that their choice to room together carries symbolic weight in a world where communities are torn apart by religious strife.
"We often think that we're solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Yael says wryly.
Atena recalls earlier this school year when she was painting a mural at an Islamic school with friends from a Jewish-Muslim dialogue group on campus: "A reporter there was asking me, 'Do you think Jews and Muslims can get along?' And I was like, 'Well, I live with a Jew, and we get along just fine.' ... [Yael's] one of my best friends. It gives people hope, I think, in a way, to see Jews and Muslims living together."
• Part 1 appeared in Monday's Monitor.