Jewish and Muslim families form lasting friendship after viral photo protesting travel ban

CHICAGO — A year ago, these two families could not have predicted they would be together this week lighting candles on a menorah.

The Bendat-Appells of Deerfield, Ill., are a Jewish rabbi and his wife, who works full-time for a Jewish organization, and their three children, who all attend a Jewish Day school on the North Shore.

The Yildirims, who live in Schaumburg, Ill., are a Muslim husband and wife and their four children, who have never set foot in a synagogue and before this year had no Jewish friends.

Yet their friendship is a reflection of what they celebrated together Sunday evening at the rabbi’s home. The ritual of lighting the menorah during the eight days of Hanukkah reminds Jewish people of how a tiny bit of oil was able to create light in the darkness for much longer than expected, just as the bond between the two families has continued to illuminate their lives, months after their chance meeting during a protest against the Trump administration’s travel ban in February at O’Hare Airport.

>> Man planned mass shooting at Islamic center in Florida, police say

At the protest, each father hoisted a child onto his shoulders — then 9-year-old Adin Bendat-Appell wearing his yarmulke, and then 7-year-old Meryem Yildirim in her hijab — and the two poster-carrying kids were captured sharing a laugh together in a Chicago Tribune photograph.

Since then, the photo has gone viral, viewed by people around the world who saw the image as a symbol of hope amid political disagreement and changing immigration policies.

The two families have enjoyed a friendship that continues months later, including joining together for a meal at the breaking of Ramadan fast, a 5K walk for peace outside the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center and other celebrations.

“We do this to show that something that is smaller than you expect to be able to survive and bring light can,” said Yael Bendat-Appell, the rabbi’s wife, as she guided the children’s hands while they took turns lighting the candles.

The Muslim mother smiled as she nudged her daughters closer.

“Wow,” Amy Yildirim said. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

>> Facebook offered 'Jew Hater,' 'Ku Klux Klan,' other hate-based audiences to advertisers

Both families were surprised by the attention thrust on them immediately after their photo went public.

Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, who teaches meditation for the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in New York, said he received dozens of Facebook comments, emails and voicemails from strangers. While there were a few negative responses from people who did not condone bonding between Jews and Muslims, most of the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Bendat-Appell said he was most touched by religious Jews who wrote with the Hebrew words “Kiddush Hashem,” which means “You’re sanctifying God’s name.”

“We never did anything heroic or extraordinary,” Bendat-Appell said. “It still doesn’t feel heroic. It feels human.”

For the Yildirims, the photo’s quick popularity at first triggered anxiety. Fatih Yildirim, a longtime permanent resident of the U.S., had procrastinated becoming an official U.S. citizen for years, because he thought it was an unnecessary formality. When an executive order prohibited people from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., he and his wife decided citizenship would protect him from having to leave his wife and children, who were already citizens. They worried the image of him at the protest would be used against him in his application, Amy Yildirim said.

Fatih Yildirim’s family in Turkey alerted him to international news stations using the photo and reporting that he was befriending enemies. He told his family abroad that if anyone tried to persecute them because of his photo, they should publicly disown him for their own safety. He said he has since been granted citizenship in the U.S., which helped ease the family’s concerns.

>> Father, daughter survive Syria war zone, reunite with wife in Charlotte

“It’s so positive,” Fatih Yildirim said of his friendship with Rabbi Bendat-Appell. “My friends ask me to ask him questions (about the Jewish religion) sometimes.”

The families were grateful for the relationship that began to blossom the minute each father carried home the other’s contact information they exchanged at the airport. At a Shabbat dinner days later, the Bendat-Appell and Yildirim children played happily together while the adults got to know one another. They reunited several times in the months that followed, often bringing friends along to share the experience. While the adults occasionally compare notes on how biblical stories are told in each of their religions, most of their bonding is just about normal, every day topics: where they work, what the kids are doing, what ingredients are in the delicious meals they share.

The parents say they never delve too much into the details of why the families get together, because the children aren’t looking for an explanation.

On Sunday, after a quick exchange of hellos, the Yildirim children tossed off their coats and immediately ran into a playroom, where Adin, now 10, schooled the others on the rules of a game of dreidel. It didn’t take long before all the children were munching on chocolates and spinning the dreidel in hopes of it landing on the Hebrew symbol for “take it all.”

“They don’t see the other children as a label,” said Amy Yildirim. “It’s just their friends. I think that’s great.”

The Bendat-Appells and Yildirims say they plan to continue regular get-togethers, bringing in friends and family to expand the relationships whenever possible.

Yael Bendat-Appell said she feels honored that her family members were the ones captured in an image that reminds people of the humanity that continues every day in the world, even when not caught by a camera.

“It’s heartening to know that these things are happening, that people are doing such hard work to build bridges,” she said.

About the Author