Chelsea Garbell: The Bridge Builder

 by Gentry BrownPublished December 15, 2011

It’s one thing to build a bridge. It’s another to make the journey across it. Chelsea Garbell does both.

 

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As president of Bridges, a Muslim-Jewish Interfaith Dialogue club, the Steinhardt junior’s dedication to fostering respectful conversation and understanding between the two religions goes far beyond the typical call of duty.

Following her interview with WSN, Garbell jetted off to Fast-A-Thon — an event held by NYU’s Islamic Center. She was attending not out of presidential obligation to Bridges but in genuine support of friends.

“This Fast-A-Thon matters to the friends I’ve made in the Muslim community, so it matters to me too,” she said. “It’s corny, but we really have built a lot of bridges.”

In addition to fostering community between the two groups, Garbell dedicates her time to Bridges planning panels and events, including the popular Jum’ah/Shabat Fridays. Jewish students attend the Jum’ah prayer at the Islamic Center with Muslim students, and then both communities head to Friday night Jewish services. Afterwards students get together for dinner or activities.

Garbell’s conciliatory influence has permeated throughout the NYU Bridges community to the national stage. Garbell was NYU’s nominee for the Truman Scholarship, and she has also acted to make her cause global. This summer, she traveled to Ghana with the American Jewish World Service to build a wall encircling a school for former child slaves.

Within NYU, Bridges has become so popular that the university has planned an Alternative Breaks trip to Nashville, Tenn. As part of the trip, students from the Jewish and Muslim communities will volunteer to help rebuild the region, which was damaged by heavy flooding earlier in the year. Students will also engage with the local religious communities.

Garbell and the three other board members planned the trip in conjunction with the Jewish Disaster Response Corps run by the Bronfman Center. She noted that so much interest has been generated that she still has freshmen asking if they can join.

Nationally, Bridges has inspired 16 other universities to participate in the fourth-annual weekend of “Twinning of Mosques and Synagogues,” for which Garbell helped coordinate involvement. The club is also one of 250 nominees for the president’s Interfaith Community Service Challenge.

“I love that Bridges has taken a huge leap of expansion,” she said. “One of the biggest ways to fix anything is to develop understanding and break down the barriers of ‘us versus them’ and recognize what we have to share and also to respect the differences we have.”

The drive to build these bridges comes from Garbell’s religious observance and upbringing, which instilled a desire to give back to the community that has always fostered her.

“The Jewish community here has always been the number one driving force in my life,” she said. “It’s why I love being at NYU so much, more than anything else. I try to give back in any way that I can.”

Coordinating events for Bridges has allowed Garbell to explore her other interests, like women’s reproductive rights, grassroots campaigning, global public health and, of course, interfaith and religious tolerance.

With several successful discussion panels focusing on issues from food and fashion to gender and sexuality, Garbell and the Bridges board are taking the next step, a controversial one: They are planning an invite-only, sit-down conversation next semester targeted specifically for political discourse.

“It will be a time and space for people to actually talk about the difficult, uncomfortable issues in a context, with people that they have gotten to know and respect,” she said. “That’s really the whole point of Bridges … Once you have a relationship with somebody you can still have an argument and disagree and still walk away friends.”

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Dec. 15 print edition. Gentry Brown is a deputy university editor. Email her at gbrown@nyunews.com

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