Interfaith Friendships in High School – Ari Kirsch

Throughout my life, I’ve had the fortune of feeling at home in many different communities. I was active at my synagogue and my summer camp, and at both of these places I met some of my best friends in the whole world. I always felt at home at synagogue and at camp because I was surrounded by other Jewish people who shared my experiences and values. When I was with them, I didn’t have to explain what Shabbat was or why “those people” wear “those tassels” or “those hats.” This sense of comfort led to my sense of belonging in Jewish communities.

During the first couple days of my freshman year of high school, I met two girls in my algebra class named Renee and Kennedy. They were smart, kind, and even though I didn’t know it at the time, they would become two of my lifelong best friends. Through long classes and after-school coffee dates, I learned that Renee is Muslim and Kennedy is Christian. We began to have in-depth, expressive conversations about religion and how it affects our lives and those of the people surrounding us. We observed similarities among and differences between our faiths and religious practices, and through these discussions I gained knowledge of ideas like what it means to identify with a religion culturally but not religiously, or how so many religions share extremely similar values and even beliefs.

My high school experience was completely changed for the better through my newfound understanding of people’s similarities and my realization that a lot of them, too, were eager and willing to have productive, respectful discussions. I no longer viewed being one of the only Jews in my 900+ person high school class as a thing that isolated me, but rather as an opportunity to educate, listen and learn. Additionally, while I had always enjoyed having thought-provoking conversations, I had previously been too timid to start them in many situations. However, once I began regularly participating in interfaith dialogue, my comfort level in these situations grew.

Due to my fortune in befriending Renee and Kennedy five years ago, I not only gained two of the most knowledgeable, open-minded, kind-hearted friends I’ve ever met, I also gained comfort in my own identity and its well-positioned place in the world of religion, culture, and belonging. From the moment I found out about this fellowship, I knew I wanted to be in such a safe, encouraging space and help others feel the same comfort I do when discussing interfaith ideas. I hope that through this fellowship I can help create an amicable atmosphere in which every fellow and every person feels at home in this UW community.

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