The Temple University-based Dialogue Institute (DI) is hosting 20 students from Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand for a program focused on religious pluralism and democracy.
From meeting their first Jews to eating (decidedly treif) cheesesteaks, a group of young adults from Southeast Asia have been enamored with the sights and sounds of religion and culture in Philadelphia.
The Temple University-based Dialogue Institute (DI) is hosting 20 students from Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand for a program focused on religious pluralism and democracy. The DI program, run in collaboration with the International Center for Contemporary Education (ICCE) Jan. 9 to Feb 13, is part of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Academic Fellowship. Besides introducing young leaders, aged 18 to 25, to a university or college campus, it includes an academic residency, leadership development training, educational study tour, community service and collaboration with American peers.
“To us, they’ve been a very positive group and ready to enter into discussions both with Americans and amongst themselves,” said Barbara Zasloff, president of ICCE.
On Jan. 22, just before the start of a snowstorm that paralyzed the city, the kids visited Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City. There, they learned about Judaism from Rabbi Eli Freedman, schmoozed with congregants at an Oneg Shabbat and attended services, where some of them even danced to the music.
“For many of the kids, they have never heard of Judaism or met a Jew,” Rabbi Freedman said. “It’s a good opportunity to dispel Jewish stereotypes. A lot of us take for granted how easy it is to be Jewish in Philadelphia. I think it’s hard for a lot of them to grasp that they can be hated for religion.”
The fellowship was created by President Barack Obama to strengthen leadership development across Asian countries, deepen engagement with young leaders on key regional and global challenges, and strengthen ties between the U.S. and Southeast Asia.
The program introduces students to central elements of American history, society, institutions and democracy through a focus on American religious freedom. It consists of a four-week residential component in Philadelphia, including various religious, historical and cultural site visits, as well as trips to New York City, Washington, D.C., and other parts of the country.
The DI has been hosting programs on religious pluralism and democracy for Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian participants twice a year since 2010. To date, more than 200 alumni have participated.
Netusha Naidu, 21, of Malaysia, who is in her gap year after college, heard from friends how much fun the trip is. She said the program became quite popular in Malaysia after President Obama spoke at Taylor’s University in Kuala Lumpur, in November 2015 about the fellowship.
Her family is Hindu, but she considers herself liberal and interested in religious pluralism, which is why she went on the trip. This was not only her first time in America, but her first time meeting Jews.
“For me, it’s a very different experience because there’s a very high degree of religious freedom in this county compared to my country,” she said.
As she walked into Rodeph Shalom, she was awed by its beauty and size. Because of her curiosity about Judaism, she was intrigued with the artifacts at the synagogue, especially the Torah.
“I’ve always wanted to meet a Jew,” Naidu said. “I really want to bring this experience back to Malaysia.”
Ghed Cosain of the Philippines, 22, who works in the Autonomous Region in Mindanao, is a practicing Muslim in a country that is primarily Christian.
He told the Jewish Exponent he was impressed with the extent of religious freedom displayed in Philadelphia and was overwhelmed not only by the cheesesteaks, but by meeting a Jew and a female religious leader for the first time.
“There was a time I was almost caught in shock,” he said. “I was speechless by what she said about conducting the first same-sex marriage. You guys have big portions of food and it shocked me because I could only eat half of that.”
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