Shul program builds Jewish-Muslim ties
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Shul program builds Jewish-Muslim ties

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From left, Rabbi Steven Sirbu, Elijah Muhammad, Imam Saeed Qureshi, and Andrea Winters stand in front of Temple Emeth in Teaneck.

In 2007, the Union for Reform Judaism urged its congregations to embrace a broader vision of interreligious understanding, says Rabbi Steven Sirbu, religious leader of Teaneck’s Temple Emeth.

In a major initiative launched at URJ’s biennial convention, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the organization’s president, declared that “Jews are not well-educated about Islam, and Muslims are not well-educated about Judaism. In our increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, we can ill afford to segregate ourselves within our mosques and synagogues.”

Heeding the call for synagogues to reach out to their Muslim counterparts, in 2008 Sirbu’s congregation began a dialogue with a mosque in Teaneck, Masjid Darul Islah, using a curriculum written and published by URJ and the Islamic Society of North America. Working from a text entitled “Children of Abraham: Jews and Muslims in Conversation,” the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Committees of Temple Emeth and Masjid Darul Islah began a series of monthly meetings.

With 12 members from each institution, the group – meeting two hours on a Sunday, sometimes at one of the houses of worship and sometimes at members’ homes – tackled “segments organized from low-tension to high-tension topics,” said Leonia resident Andrea Winters, a member of Temple Emeth and co-coordinator with mosque member Elijah Muhammad of the dialogue team.

“As we got to build trust, we could embark on more difficult terrain,” she said, citing hot-button issues such as the status of Jerusalem and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As time went on, she said, “more and more stories were shared about individual personal experiences [like] anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia.”

Winters said that as the scheduled curricular meetings were coming to an end in December, “we discovered that we were only just beginning to talk.”

As a result, the group – with members from Leonia, Teaneck, Tenafly, Fort Lee, and Paterson – opted to continue through May. Since January, she said, “we have been engaged in topics of our own choosing, such as gender.”

Up to this point, she said, she and Muhammad have served as “co-chairs, co-coordinators, and process facilitators.” The additional sessions, however, have had rotating discussion leaders.

The dialogue team began with sessions designed to “introduce us to each other and to basics such as the Torah and the Koran and issues of charity in both faiths,” said Winters.

“The goal is to listen to each other, not to change minds,” she added, mentioning an upcoming dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She noted that there had been some tension in an earlier discussion on the topic, particularly as regarded “the perception of Jews as oppressors. [The Jews] were defensive about others seeing them that way,” she said.

Another discussion involved the immigration experiences of both groups, a topic that brought the members closer, she said.

Sirbu pointed out that the clergy of the two religious institutions have fully endorsed the project but decided not to sit in on the meetings from month to month.

“We felt it would be a better process if we took a step back,” he said. He noted as well that while a dialogue could succeed only in a small and closed environment, his congregation has sought various ways to share the committee’s achievements.

In the fall of 2008, for example, “Our annual Joshua Trachtenberg Memorial Lecture was on ‘Jerusalem: Holy City in Judaism and Islam,’ presented by Rabbi Phil Lieberman, an expert in Jewish law,” said Sirbu. All members of the mosque were invited to attend the event, held during a Shabbat service, “and there was a nice turnout. We were very encouraged and heartened.”

Noting that he enjoys cordial relations with the mosque’s imam, Saeed Qureshi, Sirbu added that last Chanukah he invited all dialogue members to the synagogue to lead a discussion for the entire Temple Emeth community on what they had accomplished.

The rabbi pointed out that the dialogue members from Temple Emeth had been appointed by the synagogue leadership “because we thought they would be good representatives” of the congregation. He did not know how their Muslim counterparts were chosen.

At the Chanukah session, “we had a great turnout and very rich discussion. The congregation didn’t know what was being accomplished. [Now] they had a sense of the worth of this project.”

“We talked to the congregation about what we learned from each other,” said Winters. But even more, “we were joking around [and] the congregation observed our teasing and playfulness,” she said.

“We’re looking for more ways to share the dialogue process and its goals with the entire temple-mosque community and whole community,” said Sirbu. “It opens our eyes to the struggles of peoples of different faiths, makes us aware of our own prejudices, and promotes understanding.”

One such effort will take place on Sunday, April 25, when Temple Emeth co-hosts “Under the Veil,” an interactive theatrical performance.

According to Winters, last spring one of the dialogue members saw the presentation at a meeting of the Ethical Culture Society.

“He loved it. So I brought it to Pace [University, where she teaches] and the students loved it as well.”

The presentation is intended to challenge audience members to think in ways they haven’t thought before, she said, adding that the program is free and open to the whole community. It is the dialogue project’s first joint initiative.

Performed by the TE’A Project (Theater, Engagement and Action), the show is based on interviews conducted by the actors in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and is intermixed with facilitated dialogue between the actors and the audience.

To broaden the range of those involved in the program, it is being co-sponsored not just by the dialogue committees of the two houses of worship but by their youth groups as well.

“The performance is intended for people of all ages,” said Sirbu, noting that while it was not appropriate for the youth to be involved in the dialogue itself, “it will get them thinking about it.” The young people will also help with refreshments.

The rabbi was pleased about the “enthusiasm” the dialogue team brought back to the congregation. “They brought back the understanding that coexistence depends on relationships. They don’t meet as Jews and Muslims but as a group of 24 people who know and like one another and enjoy the chance to share ideas.”

“Under the Veil” will be presented at Temple Emeth from 2:30 to 4 p.m., April 25. For further information, call (201) 833-1322.

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