Idealism of interfaith at Harvard Medical School - opinion

When the Jewish panelist was talking about Judaism my classmate texted a friend: “Because they don’t believe in an afterlife. So they kill people.”

EVEN AT A secular institution like Harvard Medical School, we are still strengthening the walls that have acted to divide us, says the writer. (photo credit: Nemeth Dezso/Wikimedia Commons)
EVEN AT A secular institution like Harvard Medical School, we are still strengthening the walls that have acted to divide us, says the writer.
(photo credit: Nemeth Dezso/Wikimedia Commons)

Last month at Harvard Medical School, Jewish, Muslim and Christian student organizations came together to cohost an interfaith event on religion and the afterlife.

The event was geared at breaking down the stigma of a dichotomy needing to exist between faith and medicine, of understanding the views of the afterlife and a higher power of the patients we treat and of patients with views different from our own, and of hearing how the faith of each panelist physician has affected their own views on how medicine should be practiced.

We came together as interfaith leaders to plan and execute an event that I truly believed would break barriers and cultivate learning from each other, about each other.

The event was a moderated panel in Harvard Medical School’s main auditorium.

The moderator would ask a question and a physician of each faith would take their turn answering, offering their perspective as a physician and the teachings of their faith. The discussion was fascinating. I learned about how the Jewish panelist grew up sleeping in a hospital on Friday nights so that her father could treat patients on the Sabbath without needing to drive.

Buildings in Harvard Yard are reflected in frozen puddle at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 20, 2015. (credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)Buildings in Harvard Yard are reflected in frozen puddle at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 20, 2015. (credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)

I was taught about Akhira, the Islamic afterlife that can be reached with atonement. I learned about how Christianity views prayer and the perception that followers of Jesus are viewed to have an eternal life.

I was witnessing an auditorium full of students and community members that were genuinely learning about the other, stepping out of their comfort zones to explore topics that are not easily discussed and witnessing a community where individuals of such wide and varied backgrounds could learn together as one.

My naivety, unfortunately, did not last long. In the middle of the talk, I started to receive pictures and messages from a friend of mine seated above a classmate. In the inclined auditorium, texts being sent from an individual seated below are easily read by an individual sitting above.

My classmate texting below is of a different faith, a leader in an organization, and we sat together both inside the classroom and beyond it. Little did I realize, however, that the hatred she must feel for my people extends far beyond what an interfaith panel could repair.

Talking about Judaism

WHEN THE Jewish panelist was talking about Judaism placing an emphasis on this life instead of an afterlife, discussing the need to do good in this world while we still can, my classmate texted a friend: “Because they don’t believe in an afterlife. So they kill people.”

The response she received from another individual also sitting inside the auditorium: “It all makes sense now.”

The texts continued. As the Jewish panelist continued discussing the Torah’s teachings on commandments and good deeds, my classmate sent another text: “Then how do you justify ethnic cleansing if you’re supposed to do good in this world?”

Is it impossible to think that in a place with the prestige of Harvard Medical School, with an expected level of compassion and understanding of classmates who want to devote their careers to caring for human life, we would be able to host an interfaith event genuinely geared at viewing others with understanding and good intention? Is it impossible to think that my Muslim classmate and friend could view me as something beyond just a Jewish killer?

Instead of growing together, I was instead made to believe that my own classmates believe that Jews are ethnic cleansers and that my religion is one rooted in scripture that justifies murder.

I was degraded, embarrassed and belittled

Cami Tussi

In an institution meant to set the framework for the future of compassion, one meant to be selective for individuals who wish to treat patients of all faiths with kindness, empathy and respect, my peers believe I justify murder and death of another merely because of my Jewish identity.

It is easy to dream of transcending religious boundaries, creating forums of growth, setting aside cultural conflicts to truly learn about those with different upbringings and cultures, establishing a headspace for learning and mutual respect, and of being made to feel like I belong.

Sadly, however, we are evidently a long way away from tearing past these divisions. Even at a secular institution like Harvard Medical School, once believed to be a hub of learning and knowledge, we are clearly still strengthening the walls that have for so long acted to divide us.

It will take more than just panels and educators to tear down our walls. Until we genuinely find it within ourselves to want to connect with one another, to view each other as good intentioned and with respect, and to set aside personal vendettas and look for unity, we will continue adding bricks and mortar to our walls of separation.

The writer is a student at Harvard School of Dental Medicine. She is the president of HMS and HSDM Jewish Student Club. She was a Ronald S. Lauder Fellow for the World Jewish Congress and sits on the World Jewish Congress NextGen Advisory Committee.