Canvases with bold colors and Arabic letters lined the walls of the rooms. Downstairs, students rapped about Islam and Judaism to their own version of the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" melody, followed by songs performed in Arabic, Hebrew and English. For the first time, Muslim and Jewish students at Emory University collaborated for an interfaith art gala.
The Muslim Student Association has planned galas for the past eight years, but this year, the group decided to take it a step further. It joined with Emory Hillel, the Jewish student organization, to host the gala. The program strives to use art to promote understanding and tolerance.
Asad Abdulla, president of the Muslim Student Association, is a senior at Emory. When he started as a freshman four years ago, he said, there was a clear divide between Muslim and Jewish students, with little interaction on campus. The students have worked hard to change that.
"We want to serve as a model for other schools, to show that this is what other campuses should try to strive for in terms of Muslim-Jewish relations," Abdulla said.
Their efforts bear tragic relevance. Last month, an attack at a Jewish school in France left four people dead. In California, a Muslim woman was beaten to death in her home and left with a note that read, "Go back to your country."
The students' work didn't come without challenges. Their goal was to illustrate unity on campus, but not everyone believed in their vision.
"A lot of people were skeptical, that maybe people couldn't handle it or understand it," Abdulla said. "Knowing that our cultures are different, the way we work is different, a lot of people weren't sure if we would be able to take the relationship to the next level, but we had to convince them that something of this magnitude needs to happen."
Students perform songs in Arabic, Hebrew and English at the interfaith art gala at Emory University.
At the gala, skepticism didn't slow them down at all. Students who helped plan the event moved around a room with energy and excitement. Alexis Berkow, president of Hillel, lit up when she described what it was like for the students to plan the gala together.
"We had a group of Jewish and Muslim students working together, and I think that was the most amazing experience, spending time with these people that you wouldn't normally spend time with. You realize you're exactly the same, you're all going to college and you have a lot of the same goals, and it makes the other people see that you are the same, too," Berkow said.
Comedians Dean Obeidallah and Scott Blakeman were invited to perform at the gala. They kept guests laughing and ended their performances by stressing the importance of promoting peace through dialogue.
Attendees of the gala listen to comedians Scott Blakeman and Dean Obeidallah perform.
"When I go to the synagogue and I look in the prayer book, it says seek peace and pursue it, it talks about embracing all, and that's what to me, not only being Jewish is, but what the state of Israel is supposed to be also. I hope that will happen," Blakeman said.
For Abdulla, who graduates in May, this is where the work begins.
"Muslims and Jews who are leaders on campus will be leaders in their communities, and when they leave Emory and go out into the world, they are OK working with a Muslim person, or they are OK working with a Jewish person," Abdulla said.