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Muslim-jewish Program for U.S. Students Aiming for Understanding Via Trip Abroad

Like many young Americans, Aaron Tapper and Gibran Bouayad are traveling to Europe this summer. It’s no pleasure trip, however, and they’ve got some company.

Tapper, 33, and Bouayad, 29, are the co-founders and executive directors of Abraham’s Vision, dedicated to creating a new generation of mutually respectful Jewish and Muslim leaders. They are taking 24 U.S. university students – 12 Jewish and 12 Muslim, mainly of Palestinian descent – to Balkan countries recently torn apart by civil war.

Like the staff and students of Abraham’s Vision, the leadership is ethnically mixed.

Tapper is Jewish, an alumnus of yeshivahs and the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah. He lives at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute near Los Angeles, where his wife, Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper, is director of the Brandeis Collegiate Institute.

Bouayad, a native Angeleno, is Muslim. His father is Moroccan; his mother has a Jewish father and Christian mother.

The two met in the summer of 2003, when they were in Holland to attend the Institute for International Mediation and Conflict Resolution in The Hague and were assigned as roommates. There, they founded Abraham’s Vision, named for their mutual biblical ancestor.

One challenge was how to be different from existing organizations striving for Israeli-Palestinian and Jewish-Muslim understanding.

They arrived at a two-pronged approach, one program called Unity, the other, Vision.

Unity is a collaboration between Jewish and Muslim high schools and focuses on interfaith studies, taught by educators of both religions. Classes and exchange visits compare the sacred texts and rituals of both religions and study the history of Muslim-Jewish relations, stressing past eras of harmony.

“Students learn a great deal about their own faiths by having to explain to the ‘other’ what their religion really means to them,” Bouayad said.

The first Unity program began in fall as a cooperative venture in New York between the Abraham Joshua Heschel High School in Manhattan and Al-Iman School in Queens.

In September, the organizers expect to launch Unity programs in Los Angeles, Detroit, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington, as well as a second partnership in New York City.

The Vision program, largely for college and university students, focuses on conflict analysis and resolution, and examining and comparing the Israel- Palestinian situation with other ethnic and religious conflicts.

Since early 2005, Vision workshops have been conducted at 16 university campuses across the country, in addition to adult education programs.

In the latest Vision initiative, Bouayad, Tapper and their staff left Sunday with the students for a monthlong trip to Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia- Herzegovina.

“On the one hand, Christians, Jews and Muslims have lived side by side in these Balkan states for centuries,” said Tapper. “On the other hand, the conflicts there involve religion, ethnicity, national identity, refugees and the role of outside countries. By studying these factors, we can better understand the intricacies of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”

Participants came from seven universities, including often-turbulent campuses such as the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia University and University of Michigan.

The program includes workshops, dialogues and meetings with local politicians, scholars, activists, journalists and students, and is free for the participants.

This year, Abraham’s Vision raised $450,000 from private individuals and foundations, including Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation.

The organization hopes to expand to the Middle East within two years.

“Although the conflict is chiefly in the Middle East, these two American communities can play a major role in the conflict,” Tapper said. “By changing their relationships in the United States through the younger generation, they can actually influence relationships in the Middle East.”

The greatest obstacle facing Abraham’s Vision is “widespread fatigue, born of a sense of hopelessness that anything can be done to resolve the situation in the Middle East,” Bouayad said. “It’s that sense we must overcome by showing that Palestinians and Israelis can work together.”

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