Jewish-Muslim friendship explored in campus talk

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna grew up in an orthodox Jewish home in Montreal. He went to a seminary, then moved to Israel and lived in a yeshiva worshipping from 6:30 a.m. to midnight.

He never knew a Muslim. He’d never spoken to a Muslim.

When Sarna returned from Israel, he started work as a chaplain at New York University in 2002, where there are 40,000 students, guaranteeing a diverse community. That’s where he met Imam Khalid Latif and the two struck up an unlikely friendship.

It’s so unlikely that Chelsea Clinton produced the film “Of Many” about their friendship.

“Religion is actually a binding agent,” Sarna told students attending the symposium “Can a Jew and a Muslim be Friends” on Nov. 5 at Merrimack, organized by the college’s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations

The film is scheduled to make its New England premiere at the Coolidge Corner Theater , 290 Harvard St., Boston Nov. 9 at 5 p.m.

The clerics met when Muslim students at NYU organized a teach-in to explain why they were so insulted when a Danish newspaper ran 12 editorial cartoons of Mohammed in 2005.

Sarna and Latif live in the same university housing, so their wives and children know each other. They even share the same nanny.

They co-teach “Multi-Faith Leadership in the 21st Century” and travel together as guest speakers for service initiatives, Sarna said.

Sarna and Latif have never made a conscious effort to be friends, Latif said. “I don’t really think it takes an effort,” he said after the symposium. “That’s the misnomer — at no time has it been a challenge or struggle, it’s just been an organic friendship.”

They hoped sharing their story Wednesday would get students to share their own stories.

They were surprised by the strong turnout for the symposium. Students filled Cascia Hall, sitting in chairs and on the floor before spilling into the choir loft.

“To have a packed room in the middle of the afternoon — I thought we’d have 10 to 20 people,” Latif said.

Sarna said he felt inspired throughout the day by Merrimack’s leadership, especially the Jewish-Christian-Muslim center, director Joseph Kelley, and the Goldziher Award committee, which presented the third biennial Goldziher prize later that day to professor Josef Waleed Meri.

“The turnout is a testament to the character and spirit of the school as well as (the center),” he said.

Kelley admitted the turnout was more than organizers expected, and then the symposium with Latif and Sarna was livelier than the usual academic setting in which experts read from dense academic papers or lecture.

“They bring their ideas alive,” Kelley said.

There were about 20 questions from students, though Sarna and Latif didn’t have time to answer them all in their two-hour symposium. Many of the questions circled around the reaction from their friends and families, and whether they got any pushback for the friendship, Kelley said.

Students walking out of the symposium said they went away impressed by the unlikely friendship.

Madison Eagan, a freshman from Billerica, Mass., said she has friends at NYU and was impressed by the university’s interfaith programs.

“I thought it was very inspirational. They were very well spoken,” said Eagan.

The symposium showed how unfairly Muslims can be treated, including stereotyping, said Cam Hardy, a freshman from Byfield, Mass.

“It really brought to light how we treat Muslims in this country,” Hardy said.

Kiera Duggan, a freshman from Concord, Mass., attended as part of her “Christianity in Context” course. She doesn’t know any Muslims and appreciated getting a different outlook on religious relations compared to her Christian, Jewish and atheist friends.

“I just felt I got a different perspective,” Duggan said.