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Muslims and Jews: Serving Together

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It sounds like a dream: a Muslim woman wearing a full head covering, laughing and joking with an orthodox rabbi as they paint a mural of Run-DMC for Brooklyn schoolchildren. But on Martin Luther King Day, 2011, that dream was real.

On that day, over 50 Muslims and Jews gathered together in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn to participate in the kickoff event for United in Service: The Jewish Muslim Volunteer Alliance (JMVA). They came came from the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals New York Chapter, Uri L'Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, or because they heard about the groundbreaking event from family or friends. Together, they painted several large murals inside IS 292 junior high school.

Kyla Pollack, the Co-founder and Chair of JMVA and Chair of Interfaith Service Initiatives for Uri L'Tzedek, explained that: "We formed the JMVA to create a group where Jewish and Muslim New Yorkers could unite around our commonalities and our shared interest in improving our city. By working on service projects together, we demystify each other and hopefully open up space for dialogue. It's an opportunity for people who wouldn't otherwise interact to come together around a shared, positive goal."

Fariha Khaliq, a member of the JMVA steering committee, added, "It is important to educate ourselves about other cultures, traditions and religions." Khaliq and Pollack, along with four other young New Yorkers, first met in October to form the JMVA and plan its events. By all measures, last week's kickoff was a smashing success.

City Year New York provided the venue for the JMVA volunteers and over 1,200 other New Yorkers to give back to their city on Martin Luther King Day. After a rousing City Year assembly featuring a message from the president delivered by OMB Director Jack Lew and Congressman Anthony Weiner, the JMVA group split off to start their painting projects. They divided into groups to tackle individual murals and started working as small teams on each painting.

Naba Sharif, a physician who learned about the volunteer opportunity from the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals, happily described her experience. "I meticulously worked shoulder to shoulder alongside Jews and other Muslims," she said, "all the while engaging in conversation ranging from which brushes to use to the similarities and differences in intellectual discourse amongst our religious communities.  We laughed, listened to U2, got paint on our clothes and made new friends -- but above all, hopefully played a small part in making children's lives a little brighter, color by color." Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, an orthodox Rabbi from Williamsburg, added "I deeply appreciated the opportunity to make a difference with others from very diverse backgrounds, and to learn how much we share."

Both the service and interactions that took place during Monday's event will have lasting impact. IS 292 is now covered in beautiful new murals that will inspire learning and positivity in its students. And the volunteers themselves were inspired by meeting and working with each other. "I loved the energy that each of our volunteers brought in to the school.  My committee members and I feel positive that together we can make a difference and we are looking forward to organizing future events," said Khaliq. Pollack added, "We started that morning as strangers from different communities, and ended the day standing in a circle as one team, sharing stories and insights ... not to mention carrots and hummus."

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