Food and Friendship: An Interfaith Experience in Detroit

By Adena Rochelson

Adena Rochelson, far left, with friends at the community center in Detroit

This past summer, I visited Detroit on a volunteer trip organized by the American Jewish Society for Service. Our mission was to help rebuild the multifaceted community that is Detroit. It was on our second night there that I had the most meaningful meal of my life.

We had finished our first day of volunteering at a summer camp and were heading to dinner for Iftar, the meal eaten to break the fast during Ramadan. As we walked into the crowded community center full of Muslims, refugees, and now a group of Jewish teenagers, I looked around and saw families and individuals all opening up a seat at their tables to me. I chose to sit with a 13 year-old girl, her mother, and younger sister. Her name was Noor. She explained the traditions of Ramadan to me as I explained the remarkably similar observances that I practiced for Jewish holidays. I had been welcomed into a culture that for years I have been told was so different and always conflicting with my own.

As the meal began, prayers were recited and three small dates were handed to me. This is how the fast is broken. I took a bite of the first date, remembering the last time that I had eaten this sweet, delicious fruit. I studied at a religious school and my teacher had brought dates back for us from her trip to Israel. They had looked strange and wrinkly on the outside, but tasted sweet and delicious.

The meal was not significant because of the food, but rather it was monumental because of the people sitting around the table sharing in the meal.

When I approached the buffet, I discovered the strangest mix of things that people had brought with them: pastas, rice, vegetables, ice cream, chicken, fish, cake, and cookies were just a few of the contents that lay on the tables, waiting to be consumed. It was definitely a bizarre combination, but the people gathered to eat it may have appeared to clash the most. I filled my plate with pasta, falafel, roasted vegetables, rice with the most decadent spices, and a few cookies to add a bit of sweetness to the mix. I looked down at my plate only to discover that I’d mixed my food together to create my meal in the same fashion that the cultures surrounding me seemed to be woven into a diverse and vibrant fabric that benefited from one another’s experiences.

The meal was not significant because of the food, but rather it was monumental because of the people sitting around the table sharing in the meal. As the the night continued, I discovered that Noor was entering her freshman year of high school and shared the same nervous excitement I’d experienced three years prior. I learned that her mom had left Syria to come to America when she was a teenager and her gratitude to America mirrored my grandfather’s appreciation after he survived the Holocaust.

Before I left the community center, I exchanged phone numbers with Noor. A few weeks before the summer came to an end, I received a text from her asking how I was doing and if I had started school yet. It amazes me that what could have been a missed opportunity because of the way society expects us to see one another has grown into a meaningful relationship. It’s an unfortunate belief that two groups of people with contrasting views on our world cannot harmonize to create something even greater than themselves. It is the uniqueness of our friendship that makes it so special, but sometimes beauty is hidden around us, just waiting to be noticed. After all, it started with three ugly dates.

Adena Rochelson is a 2014 recipient of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards. Her initative Operation Soap Dish provides low-income individuals and families with the everyday essentials most of us take for granted, assisting over 1,600 people each month. Since 2009, Adena has cultivated a network to collect items from across 15 states in the U.S., as well as in Canada and Israel, and succeeded in collecting more than 50,000 toiletry and household cleaning products.