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At East Carolina University, Diversity is a Laughing Matter

April 11, 2007

Have you heard the one about the Muslim, the Christian and the Jew?   No joke - the unlikely trio launched Diversity Week 2007 at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina with a standup comedy routine that kept a near-capacity crowd laughing non-stop for an evening of barrier-breaking humor. 

“Laughter has a way of melting the divisions and differences between people,” explains Rabbi Bob Alper, the standup comic who developed the innovative comedy act that partners him with Muslim comic, Azhar Usman and Palestinian Christian comic, Nazareth.  “We are all religious men and we do comedy that doesn’t hurt others,” he added.

Poking fun at themselves, playing off stereotypes, and sometimes playing off each other, their routine made a profound statement about the possibility of all of us getting along—without ever saying the words. 

“I always dreamed of being famous, having my own television show, and being adored by beautiful women.  Then, I realized that could never work for me, because I’m Jewish and I could never be a TV evangelist,” quipped Rabbi Alper. 

Nazareth reflected upon emigrating to the US saying he paid $20 to see a camel, an elephant, a bull and a donkey at the zoo.  “In our country, that’s a car dealership.” 

Azhar Usman, an imposing figure with a dark beard, teased that most people see him and immediately think of the terrorist attacks of 9-11.  “Me?  9-11?  7-11, maybe...”

Carol Ogus Woodruff, volunteer adviser to ECU Hillel, coordinated the program as a key event during the Student Government Association-sponsored annual Diversity Week.  “The program struck me as ideal for a week that was dedicated to exploring and celebrating diversity.  People often forget to include religion in the diversity mix, but in our corner of the world, the Jewish and the Muslim populations are both minority communities with less than 100 families in each. This event helped create awareness of the Jewish, Muslim, and Arab-Christian communities and also demonstrated tolerance and understanding without being ‘preachy’. ”

Additional events related to Judaism during Diversity Week 2007 include the Names Project with the reading of Holocaust victims names, and presentations by Holocaust scholar, Dr. Karl Schleunes and Holocaust survivor Gisella Abramson. 

The Jewish population at ECU represents less than one percent of the campus community yet plays a strong role in campus and community activities.  Through its history the group has actively promoted and practiced Judaism through education, tikkun olam projects, spiritual projects and social events, and has received a variety of student organization awards. 

Activities have included presenting a speaker and panel program on Israel from the Consulate General of Israel,  an evening of Israeli food and music, annual participation in WorldFest, a campus celebration of holidays during the winter months,  a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., sponsorship of Migrations, a traveling exhibit about southern Jewry, Bowling with the Yentas, (an evening of bowling with the local sisterhood), baking matza with the Sunday School students at the local synagogue, conducting seders for the campus community, attending statewide Shabbats, and more.

Their tee-shirt, which incorporates the ECU Pirate mascot, seems to say it all.
“Being Jewish at ECU certainly has its challenges, but ECU Hillel gives Jewish students the resources and forum to educate the campus community about who we are and what we believe,” states Woodruff. 

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