At the same time, the Brooklyn-born Modern Orthodox student had been working to improve ties between Penn's sizable Jewish and Muslim communities, and was developing a friendship with Samir Malik, a former president of the campus' Muslim Students Association.
The two came up with an idea: Send a group of Jewish and Muslim students from Penn to New Orleans to help in the ongoing rebuilding efforts. They got both Hillel and the MSA to sign on.
On March 12, a group of 22 students — 11 Jews and 11 Muslims — returned from the Big Easy after a six-day trip sponsored by Penn's Fox Leadership Program. All in all, Penn sent 100 students, representing groups including the Campus Crusade for Christ, the Newman Center and the School of Design, though the Jewish-Muslim trip was largely an independent project.
"You can't expect 25 students to rebuild an entire city in six days. But you can demonstrate your commitment and use community service to hit on the fundamental service element of both religions," said Malik, 22, a management and neuroscience major originally from St. Louis. A first-generation American, he is the child of Pakistani immigrants.
Through the auspices of an organization called ACORN, or the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, the students spent several days volunteering in the Lower 9th Ward, the area hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In addition to the volunteer efforts, the trip was also about interfaith exploration and dialogue, and included intense and at times heated dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A Hillel rabbi, a university chaplain and a Muslim professor chaperoned the trip and led the discussions.
Malik added that, in the past, Hillel and the MSA have worked to reduce tensions when, for example, a controversial speaker came to campus or a troubling issue cropped up, like when the groups pushed to have Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week, renamed Terrorism Awareness Week, a more amenable moniker for many Muslim students.
Sakina Zaidi, a 19-year-old native of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, had virtually no interaction with Jews before arriving at Penn. Zaidi, who wears a head scarf but described herself as religiously liberal, recalled being moved by a visit to Anshe Sfard Synagogue, an Orthodox shul in the city's Garden District, during Friday-night services.
"I have never been to a synagogue, but it was the most beautiful experience," she said. "I definitely felt a connection — that there are different ways of praying to the same God.
"Having this project, where everybody was really motivated to try and make a difference, it added a whole new level to interfaith dialogue," said Zaidi, "and it brought us together despite our differences."