Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said the chasm between Muslims and Jews is one of the greatest challenges in inter-religious dialogue.
Rabbi Donald Rossoff of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown said agreeing to “twin” his synagogue with a nearby mosque was “a no-brainer.”
Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills will speak at Masjid Waarith-ud-Deen, an Irvington mosque, as part of the twinning weekend.
November 20, 2008
When Rabbi Donald Rossoff of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown was asked if he would consider twinning his synagogue with a nearby mosque for a national weekend of Jewish-Islamic interfaith outreach, he said, “It was pretty much a no-brainer.”
B’nai Or is one of several NJ synagogues participating in the Nov. 21-23 project spearheaded by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
According to the foundation, 50 mosques and 50 synagogues around the country will hold joint activities to “confront Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in their communities.”
The weekend is the direct result of a summit meeting of 12 rabbis and 12 imams held in November 2007. The event is timed to coincide with a visit by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to the United Nations.
B’nai Or already has a longstanding relationship with the Jam-e-Masjid Islamic Center in Boonton that dates to before 9/11, and Rossoff had before spoken on the topic of Islamophobia.
For his Reform synagogue, the twinning represents “a widening of our relationship.”
But on the national stage, he said, “it’s going to be a really important weekend. Pretty soon, there will be more Muslims than Jews in this country. If we want to have bridges to cross in times of difficulty, we have to build bridges first. Getting to know each other and trust each other,” he said, marks a first step.
Temple members have been invited to an ethnic dinner at Jam-e-Masjid, to be followed by structured programming designed to discuss stereotypes and prejudices in both communities.
Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills is also participating in the twinning weekend.
On Friday, Nov. 21, the temple’s Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz will speak at Masjid Waarith-ud-Deen, a mosque in Irvington. Plans had already been set for Imam Nahy ud-Deen Shareef to speak at B’nai Jeshurun’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemoration, on Friday evening, Jan. 16, which will serve as a follow-up for the twinning activities.
The exchanges will expand a developing relationship between Gewirtz and Deen to their entire communities.
“In this day and age, how could you not be in?” said Gewirtz. “The only opportunity to finally stop seeing the stereotypes we imagine is to meet real people with real experiences living real lives. It’s our only shot at understanding.”
A ‘Kumbaya’ moment?
The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, established in 1989 by Rabbi Marc Schneier and the late Joseph Papp, began focusing on Muslim-Jewish relations in 2005. The weekend of twinning marks its first major grassroots initiative in the area.
“One of the greatest challenges in inter-religious dialogue is the chasm between Muslims and Jews,” said foundation president Schneier in a telephone interview. “I believe if we can create a paradigm and develop a paradigm in this country and across North America, we can export this model to other countries around the world.”
Advertisements leading up to the weekend and to King Abdullah’s visit have run in The New York Times and on CNN.
“We need to focus on issues that transcend politics and ideological differences and focus on commonalities, like the lies of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia throughout the world,” said Schneier.
In a summit in Madrid in July, King Abdullah preached a message of moderation and interfaith cooperation among Muslims, Christians, Jews, and those of other faiths.
“We are living in extraordinary times — to have the king of Saudi Arabia speak about his conviction that religion can be a positive force for mutual moderation and respect, for King Abdullah to express his concern about the forces of religious extremism and fanaticism,” said Schneier. “That’s our challenge: to identify and strengthen the voices of moderation in Islam.”
Twinning, explained Schneier, is his organization’s message to grassroots communities.
Not everyone embraced the idea, according to Walter Ruby, the foundation’s Muslim-Jewish relations program officer, who helped organize the event.
He acknowledged there were a few clergy members who said, “This isn’t for me,” or “My board isn’t ready.”
He said there were also “a few Jews who questioned the premise of Islamophobia.” But the overwhelming response was positive — the 50 participating communities are twice as many as Schneier said they had hoped for when he conceived the project.
“It’s significant,” said Ruby, “that American Jews and American Muslims are saying we want to build a relationship and be involved in issues of mutual concern. That hasn’t happened before. There’s a thirst on both sides to make it happen.”
Rabbi Allan Brill, the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering at Seton Hall University, who participated in the Madrid conference, likened the twinning weekend to the moment in the 1950s and 1960s when synagogues began pairing off with churches through the efforts of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Indeed, that is the model Schneier said his organization was following in creating the project.
Brill, however, pointed out that while grassroots activities create a climate for understanding, they must go hand-in-hand with policy shifts at the statesmanship level to be successful.
He called the weekend “the ‘Kumbaya moment’ between American Jews and Muslims, more reminiscent of National Brotherhood Week than ‘Nostra Aetate,’” Brill said, referring to the seminal Vatican document that reformed Catholic teachings about the Jews.
Still, he said, the groundwork for a “Nostra Aetate moment” is also being laid. Last week, Israeli President Shimon Peres and King Abdullah took part in a two-day interfaith dialogue at the United Nations.
“Right now, the big event is King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia wanting dialogue and sitting on a panel with Shimon Peres,” said Brill.
Of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is Israel, but that subject is off the table for the weekend.
“If that becomes the focus, the project will be largely unsuccessful,” said Ruby. “There are many things we can do together, and we don’t want our relationship held hostage to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.”
Other NJ institutions participating include the Jewish Center of Teaneck and Masjid Darul Islah Mosque of Teaneck, Clifton Jewish Center and New Jersey Outreach Group in Nutley, Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick and the Muslim Center of Middlesex County in Piscataway, and Congregation Beth Chaim and the Institute of Islamic Studies, both in West Windsor.