Jewish-Muslim Relations: A Work in Progress

by Jane Calem Rosen

February 2017, alone, reflected a powerful new reality as Jews and Muslims reacted publicly in support of one another. The take-away: We need each other.

In St. Louis, Muslim activists raised tens of thousands of dollars to repair desecrated graves in a Jewish cemetery. In New York City, about 20 rabbis were arrested after they disrupted traffic in a demonstration against the Muslim travel ban. The protest was organized by T’ruah, whose executive director, JTS-ordained Rabbi Jill Jacobs, told New Outlook, “Every human being is created equally in the eyes of God. We’ll break almost any law to save a human life, and right now, people are dying and at risk without refuge from war and terror. It was a small act to take a small risk with our own bodies to call attention to the bodies of other people.”

These two events represent the patchwork state of current Jewish-Muslim relations we saw as we spoke with congregational rabbis and religious leaders engaged in interreligious affairs.

We heard about genuine interest in nurturing ties; how there are more similarities than differences between Jews and Muslims; about our experiences as marginalized minorities and immigrants; and of concerted efforts to connect despite ongoing challenges. And while all agreed on the need, there was no consensus on a formula for success. It’s also important to stress that Jewish-Muslim dialogue has been underway for quite some time. 

In the Conservative movement, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, long-serving chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, first engaged with Iranian Muslim leadership in 1956. There’s a trove of correspondence and even a photograph of the mullahs and ayatollahs at the Seminary, reported Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, PhD, director of the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue at JTS. Dr. Visotzky, who was a student of Finkelstein’s, re-launched Muslim-Jewish relations under JTS auspices in the mid-‘90s when he participated in a PBS television series, hosted by Bill Moyers, exploring the stories of Abraham, Sarah, Ishmael, Isaac, and Hagar from Jewish, Christian and Muslim perspectives.

Today, said Dr. Visotzky, “JTS remains a center for this kind of essential discourse.” For years, JTS programming was low-key, but, “after 9/11 everything moved to warp speed. In 2004, we had a breakout moment when President Bush asked if we’d host a group of Muslim leaders who had been invited through a foreign leaders’ visitor program.”

In 2008, JTS began a partnership with the Islamic Society of North America, the umbrella organization of Muslims in the U.S. In 2010, the Hartford Seminary joined JTS and ISNA in a five-year program that has produced publications promoting interreligious dialogue. Milstein Center live-streamed events are an easy way to learn more about contemporary Jewish-Muslim relations. (See www.jtsa.edu and www.jtsa.edu/events-calendar).

Another place with a long history of interfaith engagement is Manhattan’s Brotherhood Synagogue. Rabbi Daniel Alder also saw a post-9/11 sea change. “In the wake of the attacks, we wanted to build better bonds with the Muslim community.” Asked if it is working, he responded, “Yes, but it is a process of education. Although certain topics – Israel, for example – are not easily broached, we are learning about each other’s traditions and seeing each other’s common humanity.”

Since the U.S. election, interreligious cooperation has grown more visible, with the number of activities rising, along with an increase in hate crimes targeting Muslims and anti-Semitism.

“I think the Muslim community is feeling marginalized in a way they haven’t since 9/11, and it’s important to show sup-port for them as law-abiding Americans,” observed Rabbi Alder. “That means outreach to a more sizeable Muslim community.” The rabbi invited Muslim scholars to co-teach an adult education course at his synagogue with sessions on Islam, the Koran, the contemporary Muslim-American experience, and Jewish-Muslim relations.

Truah’s Rabbi Jacobs also confirmed an uptick in the number of rabbis from its network who have reached out for guidance on how to establish relations with local mosques. “People are realizing that the same people who hate Muslims hate Jews,” she remarked, noting that about half of Truah’s 1,800 members are graduates of JTS or the Ziegler School. “We talk to them about how to establish relationships and about questions that might come up.”

In our exploration of Jewish-Muslim relations in Conservative communities, New Outlook found positive models already taking hold.

One is in San Antonio, Texas. Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham arrived at Congregation Agudas Achim at the same time that a new imam was hired by one of the city’s two mosques where most members trace their roots to Turkey. It was an opportunity, Rabbi Abraham immediately recognized, to do outreach to a large, active, moderate Muslim community.

“We get together every couple of months,” Abraham said. Agudas Achim’s sisterhood and the women’s group from the mosque plan their own get-togethers, often centered on sharing food. The Jewish women, who have made kugels and blintzes, were looking forward to a lesson on baking Turkish pastries from their Muslim sisters. With similar dietary laws, it has been easy to bring food from the mosque into the synagogue. Unfortunately, the rabbi lamented, “I was told that, since it’s a women-only event, I’m not welcome to bake with them.”

There has also been more serious educational and religious programming. During the month of Ramadan, they discussed the traditions of fasting in both religions. A Shabbat musical performance at the synagogue by the mosque choir concluded with havdallah.

Rabbi Abraham explained the importance of the the communities coming together in a place not far from the Mexican border: “We both need to be standing up to terrorism, and we have more in common than we have differences. It helps to realize the lack of difference. Absence of ignorance mitigates potential hatred.

“The main reason I’ve pushed this focus,” he continued, “is to show that most Muslims are very moderate. It’s in the best interest of the synagogue and the Jewish community to show the larger San Antonio community that we’re not divided. Hopefully the next generation will not be as frightened of what the ‘other’ looks like.”

Another successful model can be found at Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, a combined Conservative-Reconstructionist congregation in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Rabbi David J. Fine is an active member of the village’s Interfaith Clergy Council. One of the council’s earliest activities was an annual Interfaith Holocaust Memorial Service, conceived by Rabbi Noam E. Marans, who led the congregation for 16 years.

“The council has always been inclusive, and we value diversity,” said Rabbi Fine, recalling when a Muslim professor of Holocaust Studies at the Jesuit-affiliated Manhattan College delivered the keynote address at the Holocaust service. He also expressed pride that Mahmood Hamsa, the head of the Ridgewood Muslim community, was the main speaker at this year’s Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. With Muslims far fewer in number than even the Jewish minority in Ridgewood, “Mahmoud reminded us of the importance of accepting diversity and protecting various forms of religious expression. He brought the significant concerns of the Muslim population to our attention.” Mr. Hamsa also taught a class on contemporary Islam as part of a lecture series the rabbi, who has a doctorate in history, gave on Judaism and Islam.

The Brotherhood Synagogue’s Rabbi Alder lauded the effectiveness of grassroots changes in Jewish-Muslim relations. Members of his congregation regularly participate in the joint Muslim-Jewish Hunger Van Project, founded by Zamir Hassan. Groups work together to prepare and deliver meals to needy and homeless people in the New York metro area, at the same time learning about social justice imperatives common to both traditions.

“We need rabbis and imams talking, but when it comes through organically, it has a greater impact on the street,” Alder contended. “It’s good to take different avenues of connecting.” He noted, as well, that local interfaith councils, at one time the exclusive province of Jewish and Christian clergy, increasingly include Muslim religious leadership and laity. 

Another exciting initiative is the growth of the Sisterhood of Saalam Shalom, an organization that operates locally through about 140 chapters, as well as nationally and internationally. Rabbi Naomi Kalish, of Hoboken, New Jersey, is a chaplain at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. She heads the Hudson County (NJ) chapter, which she started in 2015, after attending the group’s annual conference with her daughter, Adina. While in her chaplaincy Kalish works across religious boundaries, the Sisterhood has created a new level of friendship among equals.

Rabbi Kalish’s first challenge in activating the Sister-hood’s local chapter is creating a a balanced group, but at the moment, there are many more Jewish than Muslim women. Kalish feels it’s more a matter of limited free time than a lack of interest. She believes strongly in the mis-sion of Sisterhood of Saalam Shalom to build mutual trust based on personal relationships.

“It’s difficult, especially now, to build trust. We’ve seen that in the escalation of threats and bias. To affect change and culture long-term, it’s important to get to know one another,” she said.

Meanwhile, Adina met a Pakistani girl her age, also named Adina, from the city’s Muslim community. The two Adinas hammered out a teen dialogue program that has already given rise to five different Facebook groups. Several teen leaders participated in an event the young women organized, and they hope to hold at least one more before the go off to college in the fall.

While the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom has made inroads through its local chapter structure, the American Jewish Committee is taking the opposite approach. Rabbi Marans, formerly of Ridgewood’s Temple Israel, is now director of interreligious and intergroup relations at AJC, which recently launched the national Muslim-Jewish Advi-sory Council (MJAC). MJAC is concentrating on investing resources in “the greatest interreligious challenge for the Jewish people, and arguably for the world in the 21st century,” said Marans. “And we believe that the greatest place for progress and success begins here in the United States.”

The creation of MJAC was deliberately announced just prior to the U.S. election, said Marans, “because it was motivated, in part, by the belief that Muslim-Jewish relations and the place of Muslim Americans within the wider American mosaic would continue to be an issue and a challenge that needed to be met.” MJAC is unique in its style and substance because it starts with shared policy issues. It’s a breaking down of the silos between interfaith relations and domestic policy.

Yet with all of the positive activities taking place and the building of good will, no one is denying that challenges remain.  “We’re occasionally tripped up over the Israeli-Palestinian issue, especially in dialogue in Arab countries.” JTS’s Visotzky said. “Sometimes we take two steps forward and three steps back. It’s the most difficult issue we confront, even as we often stand shoulder to shoulder in mosques and synagogues.”

Rabbi Marans sounded a similar theme. He argued that mainstream organizations had to “find the sweet spot within which they balance strong support for the State of Israel and combating radicalized militant extremism with assuring an America that is hospitable to all peoples, because fundamentally it is right, and it is essential to Jewish safety and security.”

In New York City, Rabbi Alder said his experience with different Muslim communities has varied depending on their countries of origin. “Muslims from Pakistan might be more open be-cause they are more westernized and have fewer issues around the Middle East than Muslims from Saudi Arabia or Iran,” he observed.

San Antonio’s Rabbi Abraham has noticed yet another issue. “In the Jewish community, when there is inappropriate or unlawful behavior, we speak out. But there seems to be a fear of being targeted as collaborators if anyone speaks out against terrorist elements within the Muslim community,” he said.

In Oakland, Rabbi Bloom, who has sought to cultivate direct ties, described a lack of organization and insularity that made contact with Muslim religious leaders an enormous challenge. He has launched a letter-writing campaign, encouraging his members to craft messages of support for neighbors who may be targets of Islamaphobia. “We want them to know we’re here for them, and we care about them.” he said. And that is true of all of these outreach programs. 

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