Jana Eizarkawy, 17, a junior from Walt Whitman High School, asks...

Jana Eizarkawy, 17, a junior from Walt Whitman High School, asks a question of Rabbi Lina Zerbarini, left, and Dr. Sara Siddiqui during the Day of Unity Friday. Credit: Rick Kopstein

As the two speakers, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim pediatrician, wrapped up their presentation Friday, they asked the students gathered at Walt Whitman High School how they have met the challenges this year.

Kehillath Shalom Synagogue Rabbi Lina Zerbarini had just told the roughly 100 students from seven schools on Long Island attending the third annual Day of Unity conference that Dr. Sara Siddiqui, a pediatrician and Elwood school board member, reached out to her after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

“Sara was the first person outside of the Jewish community to call me and say, ‘I'm thinking about you. And I know this must be really difficult,’” Zerbarini recalled.

Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel in a surprise attack on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking around 250 hostages. Israel responded with one of the deadliest and most destructive military campaigns in recent history; at least 34,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.

Neither the speakers nor the students shied away from talking about the conflict in the Middle East and its impact in the synagogues, mosques and schools here on the Island.

In response to the speakers’ question, Rayan Afzal, 17, president of the Muslim Student Association at Half Hollow Hills High School West, said he and others noticed tensions among students after October. The teen said he could see how people eyed one another in the hallway.

So his organization reached out to the school’s Jewish heritage club, he said. In November, they held a vigil in the school courtyard for the innocent dead on both sides. Tension eased afterward, he said.

“We wanted to show that these people are your classmates, these people are your friends regardless of what's happening [thousands of] miles away,” he said. “You people are the same.”

When asking a question, Jana Elzarkawy, 17, a junior at Walt Whitman High School and a member of the Muslim Student Association, noted the starvation in Gaza. International experts have warned of imminent famine in northern Gaza.

“The first conversation you have … as a family when you break your fast on Ramadan is how there’s people in Palestine right now who can’t even break their fast,” she said. “They are eating grass” to survive.

As the Jewish community prepares for Passover, which begins Monday, Zerbarini said that is on the mind of many.

“One of the first things we say at the beginning of the Passover Seder is let all who are hungry come and eat,” the rabbi said. “Many people are saying, ‘How can we say that when there are so many hungry people? When one of the consequences of this situation is starvation?’ Many, many of us are feeling that.”

The Friday event was hosted by the Muslim Student Association of Walt Whitman High School, led by students Hawa Halimi, Shiza Rehman and Shaiza Cheema. This year’s theme is inclusivity, and the organizers said the event is to embrace diversity and build connections.

Principal John Murphy, who sent out invitations to high schools across the Island to participate, said he was glad to see the event grow with more schools attending. Even if students disagree, he thinks it's better to have that conversation in a structured, safe space.

“We can't run from conflicts that are going on in the world,” he said. In school, “it's in a place where we can support it.”

In recent months, relationships between Muslims and Jews — in some cases, friendships decades in the making — have been tested.

“It’s one of the hardest things — that sometimes we have to remember that we’re friends,” said Dr. Siddiqui, who met Zerbarini at a gathering of solidarity in 2019 in the wake of the shootings where 51 Muslim worshippers were killed at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“Our shared humanity makes us feel pain whenever there's any pain,” Siddiqui said, turning to the rabbi before she continued. “You also reached out to me back. I think, you know, it's a two-way conversation.”

With The Associated Press

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