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At University of Pittsburgh, Jews and Muslims bond, matzah-ball soup included

As students spoke of antisemitism and university presidents testified about Jew-hatred on campus in Washington, a peaceful, interfaith event took place in the City of Bridges.

The University of Pittsburg. Credit: CiEll/Shutterstock.
The University of Pittsburg. Credit: CiEll/Shutterstock.

Students from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania and New York University spoke alongside House Republicans at a Dec. 5 press conference in Washington, D.C., about their harrowing experiences with antisemitism on campus. They did so ahead of testimony from the presidents of Harvard, Penn and MIT before a House subcommittee.

Some 225 miles away, two University of Pittsburgh professors—one Jewish and one Muslim—sought to convene a very different sort of gathering. Jennifer Murtazashvili, founding director of Pitt’s Center for Governance and Markets, and Abdesalam Soudi, a teaching associate professor who teaches linguistics, including Arabic, organized the event “Community United in Compassion.”

The two-hour event, which was a repeat of an Oct. 26 event by the same name, aimed to promote “compassion and unity in the face of conflict and tragedy.” Over a vegetarian lunch—a buffet of falafel, hummus, pita and salad—the professors addressed some 40  attendees at a ballroom at Pitt’s University Club.

“We are gathered here to celebrate our shared humanity,” Soudi said.

‘Met with love’

Soudi, who grew up as the youngest of nine in Morocco, said a man recently accosted him in a coffee shop and called him a terrorist. Since then, he has felt at times that he “missed an opportunity” to talk and connect with the man, Soudi told the largely middle-aged attendees.

The linguistics professor grew up in a family that made the equivalent of $310 a month, he said; his father, M’Barek Soudi, fought with the French as part of the Allied invasion of Provence and Germany during World War II.

Murtazashvili described growing up in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood as one of five children and becoming a bat mitzvah at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation. She teared up recounting losing the mother of a close friend in the Oct. 27, 2018 mass shooting there, in addition to losing her sense of personal security in the aftermath.

Jennifer Murtazashvili and Abdesalam Soudi
University of Pittsburgh professors Jennifer Murtazashvili, who is Jewish, and Abdesalam Soudi, who is Muslim, the co-hosts of an interfaith event on campus on Dec. 5, 2023. Photo by Heather Robinson.

The two opened the floor to anyone who wanted to speak, offering that “whatever you say today will be met with love.”

Attendees made only oblique references to the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas in southern Israel that left 1,200 people dead, as well as the ensuing war between Israel and the terror organization that runs the Gaza Strip.

Pitt officials confirmed at least two antisemitic incidents of harassment and graffiti on campus since Oct. 7, and a school spokeswoman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that there have been more reported anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim remarks on campus since the Hamas attacks. But the tone of the interfaith event on Tuesday suggested that the conflict hasn’t ignited the sorts of acts of intolerance and abuse at Pitt that have become common in the halls and ivy-covered libraries of some of the most prestigious U.S. universities.

There are about 1,600 Jewish undergraduate students—about 8.5% of the undergraduate population—and about 500 Jewish graduate students at Pitt, according to the local Hillel.

Jeremiah Cutright, 23, an environmental studies major at Pitt and the president of Bridge Pittsburgh, a campus chapter of a national organization called Bridge USA dedicated to combating political polarization, attended the first “United in Compassion” event. It was worthwhile, he said, in “bringing together people from the Jewish and Muslim communities to talk about feelings.”

A native of York, Pa., Cutright says he sought out an opportunity to participate in events that bring people together to “work for a better world” because he feels that his generation is “very polarized.”

He described the climate at school as “intense” and “pretty bad for a period of time” following Oct. 7 and the start of war between Israel and Hamas. “Most protests were one-sided on the Palestinian side,” he said. “I have several Jewish friends who felt they couldn’t speak out, that people wouldn’t be able to understand where they were coming from.”

He thinks tensions have calmed since then and believes events like “United in Compassion” are important because they work against extreme polarization. “When polarization gets pushed too far, you don’t want to deal with anyone on the other side and that is the problem we are struggling with,” he said.

University of Pittsburgh
View of Pittsburgh from within the 42-story, 535-foot-tall Cathedral of Learning, which includes classrooms and administrative offices, at the center of the University of Pittsburgh campus. Photo by Menachem Wecker.

Safe neighborhood

Helene Wishnev, who attended the event, told those assembled that when a red line is crossed—for example, when someone wants to kill you—compassion only goes so far.

“In America, we think if we are nice, people will be nice in return,” she said. “I don’t think with Hitler that compassion would’ve solved the problem.”

Murtazashvili responded that she and Soudi weren’t trying to solve global geopolitical conflicts. Instead, their focus is on fostering respect, including when people disagree.

“This is our neighborhood, our community,” Murtazashvili said. “Both of us want to make sure this neighborhood stays safe for our students and for everyone. That is what we can do.”

Several black Pittsburgh residents shared personal stories about giving and receiving compassion. Replying to Wishnev’s comment, one woman said that everyone has the right to self-defense.

Ramin Mansoori, a research scholar at the Pitt center that Murtazashvili directs, is Muslim and grew up in the Afghani province of Parwan. He told JNS that he attended the event because he believes that the Islamic world and the West need to interface.

“For a better future, we need engagement with the West,” he said. “We need to build community and trust.”

Finals week

Some two dozen professors, instructors, community members and graduate students turned out. JNS did not see any undergraduates but was later told that several of Soudi’s students attended.

Jennifer Murtazashvili and Abdesalam Soudi
University of Pittsburgh professors Jennifer Murtazashvili, who is Jewish, and Abdesalam Soudi, who is Muslim, the co-hosts of an interfaith event on campus on Dec. 5, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Abdesalam Soudi.

Murtazashvili told JNS it was a “difficult week with finals,” and about 40 undergraduates attended the previous iteration of the event in October, which drew about 80 people.

The professor told JNS that students have complained to her about “menacing looks,” hostage posters “being torn down in the quad” and the like. But while she doesn’t dismiss antisemitism on campus, she thinks the overall tone at Pitt has been tolerant and most students have been neighborly.

“Maybe because we all know where it can go, most people here reject extremism,” she said, referring to the synagogue shooting five years ago. (This past summer, the convicted shooter received a death-penalty verdict in a trial that reopened some of the Jewish community’s wounds.)

Murtazashvili recalled a scene she recently witnessed in which the Chabad chapter at Pitt had set up a table behind Posvar Hall, near the center of campus, steps away from Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, and was handing out matzah-ball soup.

She watched with concern as six or seven Muslim students, who had been observing the table from across the street, approached the Jewish students. “I was like, ‘What’s going to happen?’” Murtazashvili said.

She learned that the Muslim students asked what the dish was, and the Jewish students explained the recipe. They then ate matzah-ball soup together in what appeared to Murtazashvili to be a very positive interaction.

“And that was it,” she said.

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