A Jew, A Muslim & A Christian
All Walk Into The BJF
By Samantha Dubrinsky,
BJF Director of Community Impact
What’s that old joke about a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian walking into a bar? Well, just a few days ago, this happened in real life, except it wasn’t a joke and instead of a bar, the location was the Birmingham Jewish Federation.
BJF board member Jahan Berns, who is from Uganda and converted from Islam to Christianity, brought a friend of hers to the BJF for a lunch meeting with BJF-LJCC Executive Director Richard Friedman, BJF staffer Florina Newcomb and myself. Jahan’s friend, who is also from Uganda, is Muslim and came to visit Jahan, who she has known since they were in school together.
The lunch meeting turned into a two hour meeting during which the conversation ranged from American politics, Ugandan politics, interfaith relationships between Muslims and Jews, what it was like for Jahan’s friend to grow up in Saudi Arabia, the Rwandan genocide, the liberties and freedoms afforded to American citizens, to how these two women’s friendship changed when Jahan converted to Christianity.
We covered a lot of ground and I learned a lot from these two women. What struck me most about their friendship was how much it had endured over an extended period of time. They live on different continents, practice different religions and have many different passions. Yet, Jahan’s friend flew from Uganda to spend the holidays with her and her family and tries to visit as often as she can. That is a strong friendship.
I asked the women how their friendship changed when Jahan converted to Christianity. “I was angry at first,” her friend said. “But then I realized she was still the same person. In my country, people say such awful things about Jews and Christians. But I knew that Jahan wasn’t like any of those things others said. And, because of a previous experience, I knew that Jews weren’t like that either.”
A LIFE CHANGING ENCOUNTER
Then she told the most beautiful story of how she met her first Jew. She was a teenager in the Ethiopian airport, traveling back to Saudi Arabia after visiting Uganda. She was veiled, as some religious Muslim women dress, and her flight was delayed. She started speaking with a girl around her age, whose flight was also delayed, to pass the time. They shared earphones so they could both listen to a CD one of them had and talked about all they had in common. Neither asked where the other was from; they simply enjoyed each other’s company.
It was time for the girl’s flight to leave and she took out her passport, which happened to be Israeli. Jahan’s friend said she couldn’t believe that she had been talking to a Jew, who she previously heard were mean, nasty and should be avoided. This girl, she came to realize, was just like her, even though she was Jewish.
And, the most poignant moment to her was that while she didn’t know that this young girl was Jewish, the young Jewish girl had to know that Jahan’s friend was Muslim, as she was veiled. Would Jahan’s friend have been willing to talk to this young woman if she had known she was Jewish? Probably not, she said, but the girl, despite it being obvious that she was Muslim, talked to her. Jahan’s friend explained that this was a real turning point for her in her life. She began to understand that being different isn’t bad. It’s just, quite simply, different.
That’s the biggest lesson I took away from the conversation. Different isn’t bad. Each time we changed subjects, Jahan’s friend would say “And, see, being different isn’t bad.”
There we were, five very different people of varying ages in a room with various life experiences, different cultural and religious practices and it was never more clear to me that having conversations with someone different than you can be the most wonderful learning experience.