Since establishing the Middle East Coexistence House, a dormitory floor where Jews, Muslims and members of other faiths live together, at the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey three months ago, Danielle Josephs has described the innovative dialogue project to Jewish activists around the country, Rutgers donors and alumni, faculty members and representatives of non-governmental organizations and journalists.
On Monday she told the President of the United States about her idea.
Josephs, a 21-year-old senior from Teaneck, was among 14 Jewish leaders invited by President Bush to an annual meeting and Chanukah celebration in the White House. Most of the leaders were adults, heads of prominent national organizations, universities and seminaries; Josephs joined three other college students at the pair of events.
“I was really so honored,” says Josephs, a political science and Middle East studies major who was Hillel president at Rutgers last year and was nominated for the White House meeting by Hillel International. “It’s not every day you meet a president.”
For an hour on Monday morning, Josephs and the rest of the delegation discussed Jewish higher education, this year’s theme, with the president in the Roosevelt Room, then were treated to an impromptu visit, led by Bush, to the Oval Office.
Josephs says she told the president how she developed the coexistence house two years ago at a Rutgers dorm, how 10 girls from various religious backgrounds learn about each other’s beliefs (Jews and Muslims, a Hindu, Christian and agnostic are part of the group), how stereotypes are broken (she learned the details of Muslim women covering their heads). Then she suggested that the White House, which already has liaisons to various religious and ethnic communities, appoint a liaison to promote similar interfaith activities.
President Bush took careful notes, she says. “He was very concerned about what we’ve been doing. He wants to know what’s going on on campus.
“You can’t be afraid to speak your mind and express yourself,” Josephs says. She adds, “Working in interfaith dialogue has taught me to be an active listener … it increases your sensitivity.”
Josephs, who declines to name her political affiliation, calls President Bush “very approachable. I found him to be incredibly articulate and warm and intelligent and straightforward.”
On Monday night she attended the White House Chanukah party — the White House kitchen was koshered for the occasion — with her mother as her guest. The event included a candle-lighting, and singing of “Hatikvah” and the “Maoz Tsur” Chanukah song by Indiana University’s Hillel HooShir Choir.
Josephs, who was inspired to become active in Jewish life at Rutgers when the Palestinian Solidarity Movement held its annual rally at the school during her freshman year in 2003, was a founder of the school’s Middle East Coexistence Project, a conflict negotiation activity from which the dorm program grew. This year she was named one of Glamour Magazine’s Top 10 College Women of 2006, and she works this semester as an intern in the office of Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Monmouth County).
After graduating in May, she plans to study on a fellowship, then enter a career in public policy or law. “This was a wonderful opportunity to see how they work from the inside,” she says.
Eventually, Josephs says, she wants her own office in Washington — as secretary of state. “That would be my dream job.”