BOSTON - In a country and a city where Muslims and Jews do not tend to overlap socially, the party at the American Islamic Congress Cultural Center on Boston’s tony Newbury Street, just a few blocks from the finish line of the Boston Marathon, was a rare moment for the two groups to talk and connect.
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The event, where guests nibbled on baklava and listened to student musicians from Brandeis University play Middle Eastern tunes on ouds and violins, had been planned months before the marathon bombings and subsequent manhunt that engulfed Boston and left behind a city forever changed.
“I don’t think there is enough dialogue between the communities,” said Ron Levy, a retired Baghdad-born Jewish management consultant at the gathering Thursday. “But it’s becoming a people-to-people issue although we do need organizations who provide this kind of opportunity.”
In Boston there have been various Muslim-Jewish interfaith organizations at work over the years, but two organizations in particular have been working especially closely to make connections: the American Islamic Congress, which promotes civil rights and interfaith understanding, and the American Jewish Committee, which advances understanding between Jews and their neighbors in the United States and abroad.
The reception of food and music followed a program entitled “Friend or Foe: A New Vision of Muslim-Jewish Relations” held across the street at an historic church attended by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and co-hosted by the AIC and AJC.
Patrick said he had come to listen and learn from a panel led by the local leaders of the organizations. He spoke of the hunger everyone has for a sense of community in the city, especially after the attack.
“We chose to turn to each other, rather than against each other. We found out how rich and promising community is,” said the governor, his voice almost echoing in the cavernous church. “It is the source of the solution to every challenge we face.”
The challenge to community has felt especially acute in the Boston area, where Dzokhar and Tamerlan Tsaranaev, the two brothers suspected of carrying out the bombing, had local ties and lived just across the Charles River in Cambridge.
The younger brother especially, Dzokhar, had been a wrestling team captain at the local high school and was well-liked among classmates, friends and teachers. It’s still unclear when Tamerlan, the older brother, became radicalized and adopted an extreme, violent interpretation of Islam, but at some point, both brothers made a dramatic U-turn and both managed to keep that side of their lives hidden from most friends and neighbors.
“It’s no secret there is lots of concern about extremism within Muslim communities,” said Nasser Weddady, the Civil Rights Outreach Director of AIC, responding on the panel to a question about the issues local Jews and Muslims face. That is why it was so important for leadership to lead by example, he said.
Weddady, who spoke at the interfaith memorial ceremony for the victims of the Boston bombing attended by U.S. President Barack Obama, said most Muslim leaders, both secular like him and clerics, do speak out loudly and clearly against such attacks but those condemnations do not receive much press attention.
After the attack and the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers that shut down Boston, the Islamic Society of Boston, the mosque in Cambridge that the brothers occasionally attended, posted a statement on its website: "We practice and promote a comprehensive and balanced view of Islam. We strive to embody the 'middle path' to which the Qur'an calls – a path of moderation that is free of extremism. We believe that the core teachings of Islam are universal and timeless, providing guidance and instruction for all times and all peoples."
The Cambridge mosque is affiliated with the much larger, newer mosque in Bostoncalled the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center which opened four years ago after allegations that the mosque had radical ties. The period surrounding the new mosque's construction was a tense one for some local Muslims and Jews.
Though the connections between the two communities are getting stronger, they are still tempered, for some Jews, by what Rob Leikind of AJC Boston described to the audience as a “sense of acute vulnerability,” which stems in part from half of the Jews in the world living in Israel where the existential question remains, he said, “Will Israel survive? And who can we trust and who can we not trust?
"This is the subtext to a lot of conversations, but the relationship with the AIC is like a balm, a web of friendship that brings us much closer and within it there has been the chance to build the kind of friendship that we did not think was possible,” he said.
That friendship has been fostered by both groups through annual parties with their respective youth groups: Mimouna parties, where members of the local Moroccan community, both Jewish and Muslim, celebrate the feast after Passover, as well as Iftar feasts during Ramadan. There have also been joint projects to aid Syrian refugees with basic assistance like blankets, and discussions are ongoing about how to help Syrian civilians as the fighting there continues.
Mohamad Al Bardan, a young Syrian graduate student from Damascus studying in Boston, was among those at Thursday’s event. Here in America, he said, it’s easier for Jews and Muslims to connect.
“It’s very important, especially after 9/11 to reach out to other communities and show [that] a different image of one another is possible,” he said. “We all want peace.”
Al Bardan stays in touch with his family and friends back in Syria every day by texting them through the smartphone application Viber – “the Israeli app," he says with a smile.
“It’s among the only things that is still working.”