Standing together at Heschel

Standing together at Heschel

Shalom Hartman Institute brings Muslims, Jews together on MLK Day

Austin interfaith activists Amanda Quraishi, Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, Rabbi Neil Blumofe, and Muna Hissaini discuss a passage from Genesis Rabbah.
Austin interfaith activists Amanda Quraishi, Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, Rabbi Neil Blumofe, and Muna Hissaini discuss a passage from Genesis Rabbah.

Two weeks ago, a mosque under construction in Lake Travis, Texas, outside Austin, burned to the ground in the middle of the night.

Muna Hussaini, who serves on Austin’s Hate Crimes Taskforce, wanted to invite a particular public official to a solidarity event planned with the local Methodist church — but she didn’t have her number. So she turned to Rabbi Neil Blumofe of Austin’s Congregation Agudas Achim, who was able to give her the information quickly.

Sometimes it’s handy for a Muslim activist to be friends with a rabbi.

Fittingly enough, the story was told on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, at the Manhattan school named for Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dr. King’s partner in brotherhood and righteous crime.

Ms. Hussaini and Rabbi Blumofe had met through the Shalom Hartman Institute, which recently created a program for Muslim American leaders, modeled after its long-running programs for rabbis.

Hartman’s Muslim Leadership Initiative provides Muslims with an introduction to Judaism, the Jewish community, and the Jewish community’s commitment to Zionism. The program, which gives sessions in both Israel and America, now boasts its fourth cohort.

Sometimes it’s handy for a Jewish organization to have a Roladex full of Muslim activists. When Yehuda Kurtzer, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, woke up the morning after the election and decided that something should be done, he was able to invite 62 Jewish and Muslim leaders to Monday’s conference, “Jews and Muslims in America Today: Political Challenges and Moral Opportunities.”

The conference drew 511 people from across the country. At least as many Jews as Muslims were among the speakers; the other participants were overwhelmingly, and for many disappointingly, Jewish.

But Dr. Kurtzer said that the moral responsibility “to act on behalf of others and with others who are radically different from us” should be about more than convenience. Partnerships “rooted in self preservation and the inevitability of one’s own victimhood” are weak, morally speaking, he added.

“The highest level, the one I want to challenge you to think is truly possible, is to imagine the moral responsibility we have to other human beings just because they are human beings,” he said.

The conference was “a gesture toward the possibility of a Jewish-Muslim relationship in this country better than the one we have,” Dr. Kurtzer said.

“We’re trying to be at the frontlines of reimagining Jewish-Muslim relations in this country, and we’re doing so as an avowedly Zionist organization,” he continued. “That makes it hard for some in the Muslim community to participate; that’s no secret. In the paranoid culture we’re in, it makes some people think that we’re not serious about our Zionism. From our perspective, one can love the State of Israel and feel that we’re more effective in building the strength of the Jewish people, by building relationships with others who don’t share that commitment.

“We are an anti-litmus-test institution,” he said.

Mr. Kurtzer lamented the “tragedy” of bringing the conflict in Israel to America. “I believe it’s possible to have a serious relationship to Israel without becoming proxy warriors for a conflict seven thousand miles away,” he said. There’s no reason, he said, that arguments about Israel should blow up friendships between Muslim and Jewish high school students.

The core of the Hartman Institute’s programs is shared chevruta study of Jewish texts — a reflection of its founder, Rabbi David Hartman, a longtime student of Yeshiva University’s leading talmudist, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. So it wasn’t surprising that Mr. Kurtzer’s recommendations to the mostly Jewish conference was to “start a Muslim-Jewish study group. When we study one another, when we study our texts and allow others to tell their stories with deep authenticity, it will by necessity transform our moral imagination.”

The conference featured several study sessions and panel discussions. One study session featured the Austin group of interfaith activists, who besides Ms. Hussaini and Rabbi Blumofe included Amanda Quraishi, a Muslim woman who is director of social media at the Texas Association of School Boards and a fellow of the Hartman Institute, and Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, a professor of church history at the Episcopalian Seminary of the Southwest, who is writing a Christian commentary on Pirkei Avot.

“We’re going on the road to smaller Texas communities, where there are people who probably never have met a Jew or a Muslim,” Ms. Quraishi said.

The discussion centered on a passage from the midrashic text of Genesis Rabbah, which sought to answer the question of why God told Abraham to leave his homeland. The midrash imagined Abraham starting the conversation by calling out to the ruler of the world, like someone who sees a burning building and calls out to its owner. Ms. Quraishi moved easily from thinking about the midrash to an example from her own religion.

“We have a nice tradition in Islam: If you take one step toward Allah, He will meet you the rest of the way,” she said. She challenged her audience to follow Abraham’s example. “Abraham took it upon himself to do something,” she said. “We have to take initiative. We have to find one thing that is not on the ground and start it.”

Ms. Hussaini related the midrash to her upbringing. “I was raised that there is no differentiation between myself and anyone else I met,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if the house is burning or our world is burning. It’s our world, you have to take ownership. We have a saying — even if the pinky finger is hurting, the whole body is hurting. Even if someone else’s palace is on fire, it’s my responsibility.”

She said that she was fascinated to learn “how close to each other Judaism and Islam are. People say ‘Judeo-Christian tradition,’ but I think Judaism and Islam are much closer.”

Some of the practical sides of a Muslim-Jewish alliance came out in a panel in which Michael Helfand, a law professor and graduate of Yeshiva University, and Khurrum Wahid, a practicing attorney, spoke about the wave of laws in American states targeting the use of shariah, or Islamic law, in American courts.

In Florida, Mr. Wahid said, an alliance with the Jewish community helped push back the first such bills from being offered in the legislature. The Jewish community saw the bills as threatening Jewish divorce. When a bill did get offered in the Florida legislature, Muslim and Jewish communities were able to get lawmakers to defang it in committee, so the final bill that passed the legislature had no actual impact.

“Really, these bills are driven by the rhetoric in the public sphere,” Mr. Wahid said. “We have to understand that rhetoric leads not only to Facebook posts but to actual bad law. If we do not push back on the public opinion part collectively, we’re going to be dealing with more and more bills that will target not just the Muslim community but possibly many other communities as well.

“I remember speaking at a synagogue in Florida about what sharia is. People were saying, why would you want to support sharia?

“First, sharia is essentially like halacha” — Jewish law — “and Catholic canon law. It’s what you get married by. They are family issues. The bills against using sharia in American courts — does that mean I can’t get married in an Islamic marriage? I can’t have an Islamic divorce? It has nothing to do with cutting off hands for stealing. These are all bills about nothing. In the Muslim community they’re viewed as designed specifically to make Muslims feel unwanted, and not part of the society as a whole.”

Dr. Helfand challenged the Jewish community to get involved. “The Jewish community is in a very unique place,” he said. “The Jewish community is the most well-liked religious minority. On the other hand, when you look at hate crimes, we’re still the big winners.”

Dr. Debra Majeed, a professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin, spoke highly of the Hartman experience. “It’s demanding personally and rich theologically,” she said. Interfaith dialogue “is a moral imperative. I cannot call myself someone striving to be a good Muslim if I’m not pursuing this.”

In the session she led for a group of about a dozen people, she focused on one verse in the Quran that called for different “nations and tribes” to “know each other.”

“There is diversity, and Allah said it is good,” she said. “We have messed it up.”

The Hartman Institute introduced her to the varieties of gradations within the Jewish community, something far more complex than the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform denominations she had heard of.

When she learned about this, “I said, oh my God, these people are as crazy and diverse as we are.”

Dr. Majeed did voice a complaint about the lack of diversity at the conference. “It’s Martin Luther King’s Day, and I’m the only African woman here,” she said. She lamented that she didn’t think to invite friends and colleagues in New York City to attend.

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, a journalist and Stern College graduate, was part of a panel on feminism that included two Jews and two Muslims. “There’s room for a sisterhood of deeply religious women in different faiths,” she said.

“As a journalist, a heartening moment is the letters I get from Muslim women. When I write about apologetics about women’s position in the Orthodox Jewish community, Muslim women say ‘I grew up with that. You’re writing my life.’”

In a gathering called in response to the election of Donald Trump, everyone’s political sympathies were pretty clear. Ms. Chizhik-Goldschmidt, however, lamented that her Orthodox community in Brooklyn doesn’t share them.

“It’s been very painful to see certain rhetoric be okay,” she said. “There’s been a lowering of standards on how we talk about minorities. I see it everywhere. It starts as jokes in casual conversations. I see it in the questions I’m asked in Orthodox high schools, and in the conversations I hear in synagogue.

“It’s been very painful to see certain rhetoric be okay. There’s a strange place where white nationalism becomes okay for Jews. Most painful for me is hearing Orthodox women talking very excitedly that there’s going to be a Passover seder in the White House.”

The conference closed with an interview with Abdullah Antepli, an imam who serves as co-director of the Hartman’s Muslim Leadership Initiative. Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of the Atlantic, questioned him.

Imam Antepli jokingly described himself as “a recovering anti-Semite,” explaining that he first learned about Jews when he was 12 years old, growing up in Turkey, and he read a children’s version of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

“My nationalist, secular education made me think Jews as a people and Judaism as a religion are irredeemably evil,” he said. “I spent a good hunk of my teenage years protesting, burning Israeli flags.”

It wasn’t until he began theological studies and encountered Jews in the Quran that he realized something was amiss in his understanding of Jews. He finally left the “highway of hate” when “I met God-fearing, God-loving Jews. Real people. I saw the kind of values and ethical, moral framework they are operating out of.”

The Muslim Leadership Institute grew out of his frustration with dialogue partners who were not part of the mainstream Jewish community — and who were not able to counter what Dr. Antepli saw as its growing Islamaphobia.

“MLI is a dream that American Jews and American Muslims, despite all the problems we have, can still do better in America,” he said. “We can connect on our own rich American identity. Our focus is the American social fabric, American civil liberties. I believe we can do better than just importing conflict and despair from the Middle East to America, even if we cannot export hope.

“When I see hate I recognize it. I was horrified by some of the Jewish voices in Muslim quarters like Neturei Karta. They are entitled to their position, but they come and validate Muslims saying that Zionism is nothing but racism because here’s a very Jewish-looking person saying this.

“Similarly, there are Muslims or ex-Muslims coming to the Jewish community, saying this religion is anti-Semitic in its bones. Why are we inviting each community’s renegades?

“We should be able to speak and argue about Israel and Palestine, but remain in conversation.”

Imam Antepli, who teaches at Duke University and has been a chaplain there, said that the campus BDS wars are alienating Muslims as well as Jews. “I see a number of students who are sick and tired of polarization,” he said. “They’re saying if there is a litmus test for being a Muslim on campus, they don’t want to be involved. The real danger is apathy — more and more college-age Muslims are checking out. We’re not presenting joy.”

And assimilation is a worry in the Muslim community as well as among Jews, he said.

“The day after the Pew Report on the Jewish community came out, I got nine messages from around the country saying, ‘Tell us how our numbers won’t be the same in 15 years!’”

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