My class at Ulpan MILAH, an intensive Hebrew language school, meets directly beneath the synagogue at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. From time to time we hear the sounds of prayer echoing down the set of stairs that connects the back of the synagogue to our classroom. One day last week, the singing was particularly heartfelt and strong.
My classmate Dunya and I arrived for class first. Her various multi-colored hijabs always seem to highlight her crisp and clear blue eyes. When the singing began – punctuated by a darbuka, a Middle Eastern drum – I asked if she wanted to see what was going on. We walked up the stairs quietly and peeked in. Although we were at the back of the synagogue, Dunya stood respectfully a few steps away from the door frame as some 25 to 30 future rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators sang and prayed. We listened together, a twentysomething Muslim woman and a middle-aged Jewish liturgist.
Downstairs, I asked Dunya what she thought of the prayers. “Beautiful,” she said in Hebrew, after a moment of thought.
More ulpan students arrived as she asked about the meaning of the prayers. Two modern Orthodox students of about my age joined in: Yoel, a stocky, smiling French immigrant, and Michal, a retired family doctor on a seven-month visit to Israel with her husband. Laviva, another religious Muslim classmate, asked how many times Jews pray each day and when; she also asked if all Jews pray the same way. The level of our Hebrew limits the depth of our conversations, but still we manage, throwing in some English and using Google Translate, with some side explanations in Arabic.
During our break, a classmate named Muhammad invited me to join the younger men on their daily walk to the nearby gas station, where many of the students go to grab a coffee, a Red Bull, or a snack. Everyone was talking about the results of our second quiz, which was handed back just before the recess. We returned in small groups, reconvening in the front courtyard. We continued talking about the quiz, our reactions to last week’s substitute teacher, and the quality of the budding friendships growing among the students.
Something special is going on in this class, special enough that the teacher wanted a picture of us all hanging out together. Youth and middle age. Muslim, Christian, and Jew. Arab and Israeli. Secular and religious.
Here in Jerusalem, it’s easy to question our future living side-by-side. So long as the door between the Beit K’nesset and the ulpan is open – the door between our desire for holiness and the desire to grow, the door between our dreams and our days – there will be opportunities to learn, to share, to hope and to imagine. It takes people with commitment and vision. It takes places like HUC-JIR and organizations like Ulpan MILAH.
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