On January 3rd, two Muslim undergraduates, one from Wayne State University and one from the University of Michigan, joined two Jewish undergraduates from Wayne State on a flight to Dubai.

For the next week, the four would be part of the JCRC/AJC (Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee) Muslim-Jewish Dubai Mission. Made possible with a generous grant from the Ravitz Foundation, the trip was designed to provide the inspiration for JCRC/AJC’s slated fall launch of interfaith fellowships, also supported by the Ravitz Foundation. Leading the students were Professor Saeed Khan, a Muslim professor from Wayne State University; Ariana Mentzel, a Jewish facilitator and director of the Detroit Center for Civil Discourse; and Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director of JCRC/AJC.

Said Chana Shepherd, a Jewish participant, “This was a trip where the memories and friendships made will last a lifetime. I found that traveling with a group of interfaith students and facilitators gave me great insight and brought me a sense of deep compassion.”

Ridaa Khan, an Ahmadiyya Muslim, fondly recalls how some of the sites and experiences in the United Arab Emirates impacted her ability to connect with the Jewish students on the trip, “I made lovely friendships with two Jewish peers and one other Muslim peer that went beyond formal discussion and will Inshallah (God-willing) last. It was incredible to experience different events like the World Expo, Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Crossroads Museum and Shabbat dinner as a group. It was even more significant to be able to hold truthful conversations about the things we experienced, in a safe environment.”

Many of the sites the groups visited provided truly eye-opening experiences. Rebecca Cooper, a Jewish student, said the following about the significance of seeing a Holocaust exhibit at the Crossroads of Civilization Museum: “Prior to this trip, I didn’t believe I could travel to Dubai. I wasn’t sure if I would be welcome, frankly. All of my preconceived notions fell and my eyes opened. I was awe-struck visiting the first and only Holocaust Memorial in the Middle East, outside of Israel. It outlined to me that there is hope and change on the horizon.”

Added Khan, “I can tell my Jewish peers were interested in learning about Islam and Ahmadiyyat, and I was interested in learning about Judaism which we discussed together.

One light-hearted learning moment for me was during Shabbat when I was requested to go with my friend Chana, who was keeping Shabbat, to get something from her room. I wasn’t sure why until she asked me to press the elevator buttons…this is how I learned the extent to which some Jews observe Shabbat, not handling technology. We laughed and I also gained respect and insight into the spiritual Jewish practices that I can draw parallels to in Islam. It seemed that there were many similarities between Jews and Muslims that are often overlooked in politics today, which was important for us to feel.”

“We discussed interfaith differences and intrafaith conflict, such as the Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish dynamics,” said Cooper. “Along with learning about conflicts Ahmadiyaa Muslims face within the Muslim community, all of us aligned in our yearning for peace and kindness for one another. Ultimately, we are much more similar than we are different.

This trip showcased that peace begins with people-to-people interaction and a collective willingness to care for each other. It also underscored how fragile these relationships are. Peace requires time, care, endless nurturing and commitment. I fully intend to continue cultivating an environment at home that allows our connectedness to grow.”

Illustrating this need for time and care was made most apparent in a visit to American Jewish Committee’s new office in Abu Dhabi, which was established after decades of quiet, people-to-people work in the UAE leading to the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020.

Reflecting back, said Cooper, “On January 3, I left for Dubai as an American Jew and on January 9, I returned home as a global citizen. We are now ambassadors who will continue this work for peace.”

Added Khan, “Once again, I am so thankful to the Ravitz Foundation for this incredible opportunity…Not only have we built our own bonds, but we will spread the mission of Muslim-Jewish collaboration, community and conversation for the rest of our lives!”

For students interested in learning more about the upcoming interfaith fellowships, contact Michael Kuper at kuper@jfmd.org.