Breaking the Ramadan Fast in a Synagogue Is the Latest in Jewish-Muslim Outreach

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Mohammed Salahoudin Choudary, left, and Sol Auerbach at the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee’s third annual Iftar in a Synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, New York, June 15, 2017.
Mohammed Salahoudin Choudary, left, and Sol Auerbach at the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee’s third annual Iftar in a Synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, New York, June 15, 2017.Credit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York

NEW YORK — At a burgeoning number of synagogues across the United States and Europe, observant Muslims are breaking their Ramadan fast in Jewish settings this holy month.

Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer hosted an iftar dinner in Washington last week, as did Los Angeles’ Israeli consul general at his office. To be sure, Jewish-hosted iftar dinners have been happening in some places for several years. But from Berkeley to Brooklyn to Brussels, they’re far more frequent than ever.

Minneapolis’ Shir Tikvah Congregation hosted one for the first time on June 7. About 70 volunteers from the Reform temple spent two days cooking and setting up tables for iftar. They welcomed 90 members of the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, which serves the large Somali Muslim community there.

After the imam and rabbi spoke, Muslims and Jews shared water and dates, the customary fare for breaking the Ramadan fast. Following a brief Muslim prayer service, they shared the home-cooked meal, said Rabbi Michael Adam Latz. The synagogue had prepared for iftar by holding a training session on cultural sensitivity.

“We learned how to say ‘good evening’ and ‘have an easy fast’ in Arabic, and told members ‘think of this as a first date,’” he said, urging people not to talk about terrorism or the measles, a disease that has surged in Minneapolis’ Somali-American community this year.

Interview from the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committees third annual Iftar

“It worked extremely well,” Latz said. “They’ve already invited us to the mosque for a night of Hanukkah in December.”

“When we first started, it was innovative,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor, whose Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California, hosted an iftar dinner for the 10th year in conjunction with a local Turkish Muslim group. “My great delight is that we’ve now gotten to the posture ‘why wouldn’t we?’ I’ve seen them popping up all over social media recently. My sense is that they are huge this year,” he said.

A poster for the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee’s third annual Iftar in a Synagogue at Temple Emanu-El in New York, June 2017. Credit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

At his synagogue’s iftar on June 11, the meal was “traditional iftar foods, but it felt like being at the shuk in Jerusalem,” Creditor said.

Most of the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom’s 85 chapters are sharing an iftar meal this Ramadan, said Sheryl Olitzky, the nationwide group’s executive director. The Sisterhood is a grass-roots network of Jewish and Muslim women.

Rare moments of tension

Ramadan, which this year runs from the night of May 26 through June 25, is in many ways like the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During both periods the religiously inclined emphasize prayer, charity and repentance, and fasting is a key component. Muslims abstain from eating, drinking and sexual contact from sunrise to sundown during Ramadan, and Jews do the same on Yom Kippur.

Not everyone is a fan of Jewish-hosted iftar dinners, however. The Zionist Organization of America’s Mort Klein called them a form of appeasement. “The well-meaning liberal Jews involved become convinced of some of the false Muslim narrative while the Muslims maintain their hostile positions on Israel. This type of outreach is really a kind of appeasement,” Klein told Haaretz. “As Churchill said, ‘those who appease the crocodile will only be eaten last.’”

And while the joint iftar meals are largely community-building, feel-good events, there have been moments of tension. During the 2014 Gaza war, Dermer tweeted appreciation for President Barack Obama’s statement of support for Israel from the White House iftar, to which the ambassador had been invited. In response, Islam scholar Tariq Ramadan published a statement criticizing the “political instrumentalisation of (voluntarily) trapped Muslim leaders listening to President Obama justify the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians.”

This year, though, the increasingly popular Jewish-hosted iftars have taken place in Europe as well. One took place in a Chabad-run synagogue in Brussels as Shavuot began on May 30. Nearly 40 young Jewish leaders from 25 European countries were meeting in the European Union’s capital for a four-day seminar before continuing on to Washington for the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum. One evening they partnered with young Muslim activists who were also meeting in Brussels to share a joint iftar-Shavuot celebration.

Iftar in a Synagogue participant Muzhda Nazriev, a member of the Islamic Society of Mid-Manhattan, Temple Emanu-El, New York, June 15, 2017. Credit: Debra Nussbaum Cohen

“We had a few dvar Torahs and shiurim [sermons and lessons] on pluralism from the rabbi and from two imams,” Benjamin Fischer said. “Then the magic happened,” said Fischer, the president of the European Union of Jewish Students. “We had to light the holiday candles the moment they broke the fast. Throughout the evening we got closer to both holidays and the last Muslim prayer of the day happened in the synagogue.”

As Fischer put it, “it felt especially meaningful this year because of the political climate. It’s not just the U.S. administration but also the rising far right” in Europe. “Both communities are getting more polarized and there are young people who don’t want to follow that narrative of us being enemies.

“The Jewish community in Europe faces many challenges and among them Islam is a big concern. I can keep leaning back and point my finger and become part of the problem or stand up to change things on the ground. This is why we’re doing” things like the iftar-Shavuot meal “and why it’s becoming more and more meaningful.”

Falafel and shawarma bring imam and rabbi together

In midtown Manhattan last Thursday night, behind gilded Fifth Avenue doors and in its terrazzo-tiled social hall, Temple Emanu-El hosted 250 people for iftar. Rabbi Joshua Davidson, the synagogue’s senior rabbi, told the crowd that his synagogue began outreach efforts to Muslim neighbors two years ago. Just after sunset, Imam Sheikh Ahmed Dewidar chanted the call to prayer, and participants took food from tables designated halal and kosher.

Dewidar is an Egyptian native who established the Islamic Society of Mid-Manhattan mosque and has long been involved in interfaith dialogue. He says he also goes out to eat “falafel and shawarma” with his “good, good friend” Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, the retired spiritual leader of Central Synagogue. The two houses of worship are located less than a block apart, and both are just a few blocks from Emanu-El.

Another unlikely pair of friends sat together at the iftar meal, the third sponsored by New York’s Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee. Mohammed Salahoudin Choudary and Sol Auerbach first met browsing in a store when one complimented the other’s T-shirt of a heavy metal band. The UN information technology worker and formerly Orthodox Jewish comedian have been hanging out ever since, going to similar events over the past three years. “We’ve learned a lot of different things from people of different faiths,” Auerbach said.

“Two of the biggest religions unfortunately have so much negativity going on, but here we are able to come in a peaceful setting to share our ideas and culture,” said Choudary, who is originally from Bangladesh. He also attended the “Seder in a Mosque” last Passover. “When I told people back home about it they couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Only in Manhattan.”

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