Federation's support of UNF Interfaith Center paves way for special interfaith Passover Seder
BY MATT FRANZBLAU
Federation Communications Director
On a warm weeknight in late March, more than 30 students from all different faiths and backgrounds came together at the University of North Florida's student union to take part in sacred Jewish tradition, the Passover Seder. The idea was born out of a hope by the Jewish Federation of Jacksonville and UNF's Interfaith Center, to spread awareness, understanding and acceptance of Judaism and Jewish students on the UNF campus.
"Our mission is to advance pluralism or positive engagement between diverse populations, so we do a lot of programs centered around interfaith dialogue or service," said Center coordinator Rachael McNeal.
UNF's interfaith Center has been around for nearly a decade and serves a wide variety of students of all varying religious faiths and backgrounds, totaling a few thousand, only a handful of which are Jewish. One of those students is UNF senior Triana Arguedas, who aside from serving as the Jewish Student Union president, is the Jewish student liaison to UNF's Interfaith Center.
"I am very thankful that we have such a strong support system and the more established Jewish community here is really showing support by lending a hand to this student organization," Arguedas said. "It also is very humbling to know that I am not alone and that the other Jewish students are not alone."
This unique partnership was forged over the last year when Federation executive director Alan Margolies reached out to UNF's Interfaith Center, seeing how it could help financially support the organization, in order to bring together the participation of more Jewish students to its numerous programs.
"Tarah Trueblood, who is the director of the Center, along with Suzie Menaged in development, worked together with the Federation and sort of bridged that relationship," McNeal explained. "The Jewish Student union had been around for close to 20-years but recently participation dwindled, so the hope was that under the tutelage of the Interfaith Center, the Jewish Student Union could really thrive," she added.
One of the programs, aimed at fostering that environment and creating a better understanding of the Jewish religion and its practices was a unique interfaith Seder. The Seder was funded by the Federation and led by Congregation Ahavath Chesed (The Temple's) Associate Rabbi Matt Cohen, who brought his guitar, Haggadah and vast knowledge of Judaism to the Seder, where nearly all of the participants were not Jewish.
"Anytime we can get together and have a conversation in a meaningful way it is so important," said Rabbi Cohen. "I thought the Passover Seder and the way it is was set up really brought the essence of the holiday to the forefront, which is to experience slavery and what it took for us to be free."
Events and experiences like this, are exactly why the Federation wanted to allocate funds to the organization. That support is also allowing for a part-time Jewish grad student to work in the center's office for the next two and a half years as the Jewish Federation of Jacksonville will partner with UNF in helping to finance that position in the hopes of ultimately getting more Jewish students to participate in the interfaith initiative.
Cohen has also started going to UNF's interfaith text study, called 'Talk Better Together', and is looking forward to participating in 'Almost Shabbat', held the final Thursday of each month and put on by the Jewish Student Union, another organization which the Federation has assisted monetarily. "In this time where there is a lot of hatred, mistrust and ignorance around the whole Middle East issue and Israel, that when we have opportunities to actually sit down and get to know each other, we realize that we cannot just put everything in a box," said Rabbi Cohen. "We can't just keep everyone in the same category, because there are Muslim students who were able to interact with me that probably didn't have a chance to spend time with a talk to a Jew, let alone a Rabbi."
One of those Muslim students being more intimately exposed to Judaism was UNF senior Almas Sehick, who along with other Christians, Buddhists and non-Jews, sat down at a Seder table and around a Seder plate for the very first time.
"I think it was a pretty cool experience and I learned a lot," the international student described of his experience. "I think the more people are knowledgeable and the more we get to know each other, the better we can operate together, no matter what we are doing."
Interestingly enough, Sehick's fellow Muslims on campus played an instrumental role in helping Arguedas recruit more Jewish students.
"They have really been my support system and my guides in how to effectively reach students," the JSU president explained. "They are a success story, going from four people in their organization to 40-people in the span of two to three years, so obviously they were doing something right."
Arguedas credits the Muslim Student Association with giving her great ideas and invaluable support in helping to boost participation among Jewish students with JSU and the Interfaith Center. It's this collaborative and supportive environment which is ultimately why Rabbi Cohen makes it such a priority to get involved with these students and for this cause.
"Anytime we can get together at an event like the Seder it will only help, because the next time these students hear someone talk about the Jews, the Muslims, the Christians or anyone else, they can say, 'you have that opinion, but I met a Rabbi and he is actually really cool, understanding and cares about diversity," Cohen explained. "It has been a really wonderful thing for me to be the voice and the face of Judaism for these kids, who are going into this world with a lot of ignorance and assumptions based upon what they see and hear on television and amongst people in their own community, who don't really have much exposure to Jews."
For more information about UNF's Interfaith Center, contact director Tarah Trueblood at firstname.lastname@example.org, coordinator Rachael McNeal at Rachael.email@example.com or call the main office at 904-620-2837.