This past summer of 2009, 28 Jewish and Muslim social entrepreneurs from the United States, France and the United Kingdom spent two weeks at the Columbia Business School learning about each other's cultures, religions, organizations and business experience. We were two of the 28 individuals chosen to be a part of this initiative.
The program, sponsored by the Ariane de Rothschild Foundation, integrated two elements: social entrepreneurship and Jewish-Muslim dialogue. At times, we picked each other's brains regarding financial sustainability, best business practices and ethical marketing strategies; other times, we had conversations about Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
One of the most unique aspects of the program was the academic meshing of the humanities and business by way of Cambridge University with the former and Columbia Business School with the latter. For two weeks, fellows followed an intensive curriculum. A typical morning might include classes on secularism and modernity; religious minorities in Abbasid Baghdad; and comparisons of the 20th century German Jew, Indian Muslim and nationalisms. After, the fellows would separate into smaller groups for moderated discussions. After lunch, fellows might attend classes on basic accounting principles, marketing, and organizational change strategies. Classes were supplemented with site visits in the evenings which included a trip to an Islamic art exhibit and a Shabbat service. Additionally, given the many opportunities New York City itself had to offer, fellows informally organized group activities which included attending music festivals, film screenings and a visit to the Malcolm Shabazz Market in Harlem.
Another unique element of the program was the opportunity for scholars to engage and dialogue with social entrepreneurs "on the ground." During a lecture on identity and narrative, one French fellow remarked that her clients who faced institutionalized discrimination on a daily basis simply didn't have the luxury to discuss multiple historical narratives when all they really wanted was work. Another fellow, during a lecture on marketing, expressed that it was precisely specific marketing practices used by wealthy corporations that were the problem for communities-in-need with whom he was involved. Fellows gave daily feedback about professors, suggestions for improvement and what subjects should be included in the curriculum in the future, etc.
The international and cultural dynamic of the program was exceptional. Shared identities based on common experiences did not always break down along religious affiliations. This made possible many intra-religious learning opportunities. During a discussion about the banning of religious clothing - particularly the hijab - in French public schools, American and British participants responded with indignation at what they saw as a breach of secular principles with the state overreaching into the lives of citizens whereas many of the French fellows saw it as a result of French secularism in addition to France's history with North Africa and its emigrants. In another discussion about funding for non-profit organizations, French fellows were taken aback by the American government's willingness to directly fund faith-based organizations.
During the two weeks, each fellow was also expected to work on a particular case study pertaining to their specific organizations. Our organizations are two examples of the many types of organizations represented. Sam, an Orthodox Jew from New York, started a website with a team of Jewish and Palestinian entrepreneurs called www.LendforPeace.org that allows individuals to give loans to deserving Palestinian entrepreneurs in the context of peace. Sahar is a founder and writer for the Hijabi Monologues, a grassroots project which seeks to break stereotypes about Muslim women through sharing stories and organizing with local communities. We were able to discuss with the other fellows and with participating professors from Columbia Business School our organizational issues, seek advice and come to fruitful solutions.
There were moments when all seriousness broke down as when the halal-meat eating Muslim coveted the kosher meat-eating Jew's fried chicken; and when it became clear that there was an unspoken approval to collectively tease one fellow who professed fears of getting an arranged marriage after learning in one lecture the very high statistical probability within his cohort.
For the both of us, there were clear reasons we chose to be a part of this program. We have taken part in interfaith discussions before and at times were unsatisfied by exchanges that tended to attract a self-selected cast of individuals while not expressing nor engaging difficult matters. This program offered something different. The social entrepreneurship element attracted individuals who were actively engaged with different communities tackling a specific social, economic and/or political issue through their organizations. Fellows did not not politely ignore tough issues; rather we discussed, disagreed and debated. At the same time, we asked ourselves: "What can we, as leaders, do?" and "How can we learn from each others' organizational experiences?" and "In what ways do our organizations speak with each other?" and "How can we collaborate?"
The consensus was that we, as Jewish and Muslim community leaders and social entrepreneurs, must learn from each others' experiences and expertise to create and inspire positive social change. If we do not, then who will?
Written by Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah & Sam Adelsberg
Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah,
Writer/Co-founder - Hijabi Monologues
Sahar is the writer and one of the founders of the Hijabi Monologues. The project seeks to humanize Muslim women through story-telling. Unlike much popular analysis of Muslim women, the stories are not about the "Hijabi"; rather, each story tells of true experiences of Muslim American "Hijabi." By humanizing the most visibly identifiable among a stigmatized American minority, the project also seeks to open spaces for different religious, racial and ethnic groups to connect on a deeper human level.
Sahar received her BA from the University of Miami and her MA from the University of Chicago. She recently returned to the United States after studying Arabic for two years in Cairo. In addition to knowing Arabic, she can hold a basic (unrefined) conversation in Bengali. Her love for learning languages is very much intertwined with her interest in the power of story-telling, oral traditions and culture.
CEO and co-Founder - LendforPeace.org
Sam Adelsberg is an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, with a focus on Middle East Finance, as well as Middle Eastern Studies. He previously worked at the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation as well as the Office of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (ID-CT). With a deep interest in the Israeli Palestinian conflict and studying Jewish texts, he spent a year in the West Bank studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion. He has also consulted and conducted research for various microfinance related institutions in Israel, Egypt and the United States. Most recently, he developed and implemented a financial literacy curriculum and microfinance program for Sudanese refugees residing in Egypt, while studying Arabic. Before that, he was the Senior Program Director at PlaNet Finance US, an internationally renowned microfinance organization based out of Paris. There, he led their effort to establish a presence in the microfinance sector in the United States through the initiation of an investment fund and a venture capital entity for New York City microentrepreneurs.
Combining his two passions, microfinance and the Middle East, he helped found LendforPeace.org to help foster change in this region through innovative and economics based tools. He has been nominated by Penn to be a Goldman Sachs Global Leader and Ashoka Entrepreneur and also sits on the Steering Committee of the Fox Leadership Program, the board of PRISM, the Leadership Committee for Penn Hillel and the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters at Penn. In his spare time, Sam enjoys playing basketball, reading, studying Jewish law, teaching about the Holocaust at local high schools and spending time with his nephews, Izzy and Max. He hopes to enter a career in public service and have a significant impact on American policy toward the Middle East.
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