It seemed like a good idea when it began a few years ago and it turned into an annual tradition: On the Friday night of Chanukah, Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly invites Christian and Muslim leaders from the town’s interfaith community to join in lighting the large electric menorah on its front lawn.
This year, the lighting feels positively urgent.
“In light of what’s going on in the world, I thought this is really a special thing,” said Rabbi Jordan Millstein of the 7:15 p.m. ceremony, where Christian ministers and the town’s mayor, Peter Rustin, who is Jewish, will press the buttons that will light up the menorah.
The outdoor menorah was donated to the shul by Howard and Judy Simon. Each night, a different group in the synagogue lights it. The Tenafly Interfaith Association’s involvement probably began several years ago, after one of the group’s annual Thanksgiving services brushed against Chanukah planning, a close encounter created by the Jewish calendar’s eccentricities.
The Interfaith Association is “clergy plus,” Rabbi Millstein explained. “There are a number of ministers, the deacon from the Catholic church is involved, and a Muslim couple who have been involved for years.” Those two are Dr. Shaikh Sultan Ahmed, a cardiologist, and Shaheen Ahmed, a social worker, both originally from Pakistan, who have lived in Tenafly for 45 years. Ms. Ahmed said that the Interfaith Association has met for about 15 years. “It’s been a good experience,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed getting together with all of them.”
Over the years, she said, the association has tried a variety of activities, from book readings to picnics “where you just talk around tables and share food and get to know each other” to joint fundraising for disaster victims to speakers.
“Anything and everything that helps give a better understanding of each other, each other’s religion,” she said. “What are the differences, what are the commonalities.”
In past years, she has attended the menorah lighting and even stayed for the service afterward. This year, she is hosting a family dinner and sending her husband out for just the 15-minute lighting ceremony. Given his family responsibilities, he will not be able to wait around for the synagogue’s “Rock Shabbat” service.
“These are trying times,” Ms. Ahmed said. “They’re difficult. But I think we will get through them as we’ve gotten through times before, if saner minds and thinking prevails. There’s a lot that is happening in the name of all religions that has not to do with any religion. I don’t believe any religion teaches what some people espouse. People can be bad, people can be evil, religions are not evil. Sometimes religion and politics gets mingled and that I think is just unfortunate. The horrendous incident in San Bernardino came at a time when the hype of politics and election fever is very much there.
“Religion is something so close to people that other people of power can manipulate them through religion,” she continued. “But I think we’ll get through this hopefully, God willing, and one has to maintain sanity while this all is happening.”
Rabbi Millstein said that Dr. Ahmed’s presence at the menorah lighting will be “very meaningful. Tenafly is obviously a heavily Jewish community.” (By contrast, Ms. Ahmed can think of only half a dozen Muslim families in the town.)
“It’s important for us to have this message out there that the Jewish community is not hostile to Muslims, that the Jewish community at its best is open minded,” Rabbi Millstein said. “Of course we’re threatened by terror like anyone else and have particular concern as Jews about that, but we don’t look at Muslims as suspect in any kind of way.
“The statements being made by politicians now are offensive and bad for Jews and Muslims, because we know what it is like to be kept out of countries, to be discriminated against, to be seen as a threat. This is an opportunity to say to our Muslim neighbors, we recognize you and we are embracing you as friends,” he said.
“Part of the whole purpose of this is to communicate to the community as a whole that the message of Chanukah is really a message for all of us. While there’s a specific Jewish message for Chanukah of our survival as a people and the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greek oppressors, it’s also a message about religious freedom, and the light of the menorah is also the light that inspires all of us to connect with God. It inspires all of us to worship freely as the Maccabees sought to worship freely so many centuries ago.”
He pointed to the message of the haftorah of Shabbat Chanukah, the prophet Zechariah’s vision that “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit.”
Rabbi Millstein said, “It is a message of peace and the hope of peace. We’re still holding out the sense that people of different faiths can come together despite the current situation of terrorism, which is frankly quite scary. I don’t want to minimize it. But it’s davka, precisely, at this time that we need to come together with the Christian and Muslim members of our community and say that we’re not going to let this tear us apart.”