How A Rabbi And His Palestinian Student Navigated Through October 7

RELG 111: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

FALL 2023: September 6, 2023- December 23, 2023

I have long felt the discomfort of being the “professor.” How can one truly teach another’s religion without having experienced the deep joy, meaning, purpose and sorrow that comes from another’s tradition? 

I am able to teach religion from an academic perspective through an analysis of history, ritual and philosophy. I am uncomfortable because essential to organized religion is the use and abuse of power. Then added to that, when I enter the classroom I am both a religious authority and the teacher, the one “in charge.” I have the power and authority to pass and to fail, and therefore, have a direct impact on a student’s future. The power dynamic is in full swing from the moment I introduce myself, titles and all.     

As with every time I teach this course, the first session was devoted to hearing each other’s story. Why are they taking the class and were they raised in any particular religion and would they consider themselves practicing or not?

Five people identify themselves as practicing Muslims and based on their names, I made immediate assumptions about the “type” of Muslim they might be. Then I compared in my mind how far off I actually was. Were they born of a mixed marriage? Were they born in America? How are they dressed? Do the men have beards, the women wearing a hijab? You know well the biases we all have. 

Sahiba Hariri

Arten Daikos

Douha Sibanda

Crystal Howard

Youseff Rachman

I get to Youseff Rachman and he begins, “As-Salam-u-Alaikum wa-rahmatullahi wa-barakatuh – Peace be unto you and so may the mercy of Allah and his blessings. I am Youseff Rachman and I am from Ramallah, Palestine. My family has lived there for 200 hundred years.” 

I am on notice. My heart starts to race.  He seems to be challenging me. I am defensive and fearful. I am afraid. The information he has provided triggers my intuitive self into thinking he and I are enemies. I know nothing really of him and he certainly doesn’t know anything about me and we are about to enter into an arena that will strike at our varied identities.

He says, “As-Salam-u-Alaikum wa-rahmatullahi wa-barakatuh – Peace be unto you and so may the mercy of Allah and his blessings,” and I hear death to the Jews.

The signaling vocabulary, West Bank, Occupied Territories or Judea and Samaria have not yet been offered. For those “in the know” they are floating in the ether. I am worried how this semester is going to play out. I am hoping I don’t say anything too explosive and I pray he doesn’t either. But I am worried and we are only minutes into our time together. Once a week for the next 10 weeks we will spend 3 hours together and I can feel my pulse quicken.

As I make my way through the syllabus, while he corrects every one of my Arabic pronunciations, I grow worried even though I am in charge. The dynamic of teacher and student gives me the confidence to continue. 

The course is set up thematically. Wednesday, October 4th was about Monotheism, just a basic introduction to the idea of one God and how the three religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam seemingly share the same God called by different names. It always ends up with some conversation about revelation and personal connection to God. We easily navigate this discussion. For those who identify as part of the faith communities of Christianity, be they Protestants or Catholics and Muslims sharing their personal theology, all land on a personal and immanent God. All have some prayer practice made of statements of gratitude and requests. We are learning each other’s vocabulary.

On Saturday, October 7th, as I walked into my synagogue I was greeted by “Have you heard? There has been an attack in Israel.” Details were coming in… words like “war,” “massacre,” “rape,” “beheading,”… “hostages.” More vocabulary words.

By the end of the day, there were still many unanswered questions, however, one thing was clear: this was the single worst day for our people since the Holocaust, a pretty high bar for catastrophe. 

I can’t even wrap my head around the events and therefore, feel unable to share a message with my community giving them the words for how to process this day. A mix of fear, anger, and sadness deeply burying my hope, paralyzing me. Yet, I must.

Immediately, I wrote to my community offering anyone who would like to talk, that I am here. I encouraged patience before jumping to conclusions. I try to give people language for holding the pain in an indescribable moment. My heart was throbbing.

 Then I thought of my class and how I would handle this. How would each student be touched by this unfolding barbarism? The images coming out were horrific and I imagined no one could be spared. Pictures and videos were streaming constantly. People picking sides. 

Then I thought of Youseff. 

This is a moment in my little corner of the world. This is my moment to either let loose my anger or to meet this moment with the courage of love and care.  

I imagined how he would respond to anything. I imagine rage boiling over. The oppression driving him to bring this conflict to our shores and into our classroom. I was frantic. Would he assault me verbally or worse physically? Was he even a fundamentalist or a radical? Did he even ally himself with Hamas or Islamic Jihad? 

I was spiraling. Fear can do that. Who could I turn to for help? The chair of the department, rabbinic colleagues, other faculty? 

It was on me. I was in charge of my class. I was and am the professor, the teacher, the rabbi. I was in the position of authority. From a place of abundance, I wrote to Youseff.  

To: Rahman, Youseff (Student)

Sat 10/7/2023 7:32 PM


Just want you to know your family is in my prayers at this incredibly painful time.


Just 12 minutes later, a response.

Rachman, Youseff (Student)

To: Stein, Jay

Sat 10/7/2023 7:44 PM

Thank you for your kind words. 

Yet, I still wondered about how class on October 11th was going to go. Would I hold it together? Would he? I decided to reach out. 

Stein, Jay

To:Rachman, Youseff (Student)

Mon 12/11/2023 11:42 AM


I would like to schedule a time to speak with you.  Do you have time today between 3:00 and 4:00? Or tomorrow (Tuesday) anytime between 11:00 and 4:00? 


Again, almost an immediate response.

Rachman, Youseff (Student)

To: Stein, Jay

Mon 12/11/2023 12:04 PM

I am available now.

Maybe he wanted to connect as much as I did.

As I dialed the phone, I wondered if I should call from my office so as to make sure he didn’t have my cell phone. Should I record the conversation to protect myself against allegations he may make in the future about what I said? I was in a panic again, my heart beating out of my chest. 

I took a minute, put down the phone, focused my intention, slowed my breathing. Dial with love, dial with care, dial as a representative of our people at our best, at my best from a place of abundance. So we talked. 

It was a brief telephone call. I began with, “What do you hear from your family in Ramallah? How are you doing?” 

He told me for now they were safe and that he was feeling very anxious. 

I assured him that it made sense to me. I have a daughter in Israel and I too was uneasy. I chose not to share that she was serving in the Israeli army, a decision I struggled with for a long time. I was afraid. The language of “army,” “police,” “terrorist” are necessary, but quite literally explosive. Was I avoiding conflict? Was I afraid? Was I selling out my daughter and myself in our commitment to the State of Israel? Or was this not the time or place to share that information?  Ultimately, I decided it would distract from the pain, turning sadness into anger. 

Truthfully, I remember little else of what was said except one thing: In the classroom, we would stick to the syllabus and we would promise to sit together in person, face-to-face to talk if we ever felt we wanted or needed to. 

Before class began on November 8th, Youseff let me know that his uncle in Ramallah had been killed. I share his sadness. Then Crystal Howard, waited for her turn to speak to me let me know she will be missing the next class because her little brother was shot in the Bronx in a drive-by shooting. Again, my heart breaks and I wonder how the world has gotten here. 

The sadness hurts so much it has gone deeper than just my heart. It has traveled all the way to my stomach. Comparing the two makes no sense so I dismiss that line of thinking, choosing rather to live in the pain without analysis. I asked both of them if they would like a moment at the beginning of class to share what is going on. Neither one opts to open up to the class.   

The teachable moment would come on December 13th, when we would be discussing the overlap of Religion and Politics and it would include history and maps. Most importantly, with our new-found vocabulary, we were able to share our story in a way that could be heard. 

How can we talk about what was going on at this time from an academic perspective? How could we hear each other amidst the noise of the outside world? How could I maintain the safe space that has been the core principle of my teaching? 

Again, I decided on a path of openness and kindness. With each idea, with each map, I asked how that sits with people. How are you hearing this? What is your story associated with this concept of map?  

This is where the Christians jumped in. Speaking with great emotion, many of them spoke of the deep connection to certain places, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Galilee. The emotions ran high for them. This gave permission to the Muslims to share in their connection. 

All I said was, “Wow, thanks for sharing, for having the courage to open up like that.  It makes sense to me.”

December 20th, last day of class. I had asked for personal statements about faith and religion. Some wrote about God and some about community. Some wrote about rituals and some about ritual objects. Some shared them with the class, others kept them private.  

Then at the end of class before anyone got out of their seats, Youseff made his way to the front of the room and asked if he could hug me. “Of course.” I said and we hugged.  It was warm and sincere. I was surprised to notice he stood at least 6 inches taller than me. 

It was and wasn’t a public gesture. For me, it was a private moment on display. True warmth and connection. I felt friendship. I imagined us staying in touch. I recalled his sharing with me his dreams of becoming a basketball coach and I hoped I would hear of his accomplishments. As I peered over his shoulder to the class, I saw the empathy had spread. This was a moment of profound palpable attachment.       

Class dismissed. 


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