Bridging the Muslim-Jewish divide
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Bridging the Muslim-Jewish divide

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Reuven Firestone (right), co-director of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement, shows the Torah to visiting scholars of Islam.” USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture

The Clifton Jewish Center is hosting a movie on Sunday but it’s not about Israel, Judaism, or the Holocaust. It’s about Islamic history.

The Jewish Center and the New Jersey Outreach Group are showing “Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain,” and the organizations hope the movie will foster dialogue between the Jewish and Muslim communities based on common experiences. The program is part of a “twinning” movement this weekend that will bring together 50 synagogues and 50 mosques across the United States and Canada. (The Jewish Center of Teaneck will participate at a later date.)

The weekend, under the theme “Confronting Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism Together,” is one indicator of earnest attempts by American Jews and Muslims to reach beyond the Middle East conflict to join hands in battling prejudices within and against their communities.

The twinning project was launched a year ago when the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, led by Orthodox Rabbi Marc Schneier and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, invited 13 Jewish and 13 Muslim spiritual leaders to a meeting.

“Our goal was to enlist 25 synagogues and 25 mosques, but we ended up with double the number,” said Schneier, whose foundation has largely concentrated on Jewish-black relations.

“Both American Jews and Muslims are children of Abraham and citizens of the same country, and we share a common faith and destiny,” he said. “Of course, we cannot ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s the elephant in the room, but I see the emergence of moderate, centrist Muslim voices, particularly in the United States, and we must do everything possible to encourage such voices.”

Urging Jews to reclaim some of the passion they invested in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, Schneier said that a similar outreach to Muslims “can serve as a paradigm for Europe,” and perhaps even for the Middle East.

During the coming weekend, twinning sessions between mosques and synagogues, as well as between Muslim and Jewish student groups on campuses, will stretch from Seattle to Atlanta and from Mississauga, Ontario, to Carrollton, Texas.

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Ads for this weekend’s twinning appeared in The New York Times and other media.

The Clifton Jewish Center’s Rabbi Ari Korenblit said he’d like this weekend’s program to be the first in a series.

“We’re hoping to sensitize both communities,” he said. “Us, the Jewish community to Muslims and what they encounter, and for them also to be sensitized to what we’re about.”

This isn’t the first program the Clifton Jewish Center has held with the Outreach Group. An expert on Islam and one on Christianity have separately addressed Friday night forums.

Mehdi Eliefifi, a representative of the Nutley-based New Jersey Outreach Group who is organizing this weekend’s program with Korenblit, said his was one of the first groups the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding reached out to for the program.

“Traditionally the problem we are having is people are not talking together,” he said. “The more people sit down and talk, the more common things they will find among themselves.”

The topic of Israel is not a major concern for the dialogue. Eliefifi called the Jewish state a divisive issue but said that once people develop relationships with one another, they can talk about anything.

“Clearly everyone is looking for peace,” Korenblit said. “There’s no topic we’re shying away from. Will it solve the world’s problems? Probably not. The most critical thing is there’s dialogue, and I believe when there’s dialogue there’s hope.”

Although scheduling conflicts prevented the Jewish Center of Teaneck from participating this weekend, the township was a natural choice for the event. It is home to more than 15 synagogues and the large Darul Islah mosque.

“There’s a lot of unknowns that people have in terms of what happens in Teaneck,” said the Jewish Center’s Rabbi Lawrence Zierler. “People need to understand what this growing constituency [of Muslims] means for our community,” he added.

Leaders from the synagogue and mosque are still exploring options, but Zierler is confident that the program will benefit both communities.

“There is no denying that Islamaphobia is a real issue,” he said. “You have to create relationships and know your partners in the other faith communities. My hope is that we can be better connected.”

Worried that the weekend meetings, which were being publicized nationally through public service announcements on CNN and a full-page ad in The New York Times, may become overly emotional, organizers have issued a set of guidelines for discussion leaders. The guidelines encourage “all participants to listen to one another in a courteous and respectful fashion, without interrupting or shouting down those with whom they disagree.”

As the concept of the twinning project evolved, Schneier turned for expert advice to the newly formed Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement. The center is the first of its kind and was established through an agreement signed by the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the education-oriented Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation.

The three partners, all in the same Los Angeles neighborhood, had been working together for some time and decided to formalize their collaboration, said Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Jewish and Islamic studies at HUC.

“There are some anti-Jewish attitudes in the Muslim world and some anti-Muslim attitudes in the Jewish world, but there is no inherent conflict between Judaism and Islam,” Firestone said. “We have much in common in our goals and aspirations.”

His books include “Introduction to Islam for Jews” and “Children of Abraham: Introduction to Judaism for Muslims.” Out this month is his latest publication, “Who Are the Chosen People? The Meaning of Chosenness in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”

Firestone and Dafer Dakhil, the director of the Al Khattab Foundation, are the co-directors of the new center, with Hebah Farrag, a recent graduate of the American University in Cairo, as associate director.

The center’s first major project will be to compile a massive database on key Jewish and Muslim religious texts for the general public. For instance, someone searching for an authoritative definition of “kosher” also would be referred to the Islamic equivalent, “halal.”

On a more popular level, the center is planning a film series on Jewish and Muslim topics, Farrag said.

Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation has provided a $50,000 start-up grant to the center, but Firestone worries about future financing.

Noting that previous cooperative ventures between the two faiths have foundered on political and nationalistic differences, Firestone said, “We’re aware of these hurdles, but what would kill us is not trouble in the Middle East but lack of funding. There are not a lot of Jews or Muslims who want to invest in what we are doing.”

Jewish Standard/JTA

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