An interfaith initiative that bordered on the quixotic when it began five years ago — pairing synagogues and mosques for weekend-long programs that feature theological dialogue and cultural exchanges — has already grown into a symbol of how it is possible to cross religious barriers.
The New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, an independent ecumenical group that stresses the improvement of Muslim-Jewish relations, will sponsor its sixth annual Weekend of Twinning on Nov. 15-17. The weekend will mark the start of a month-long series of programs co-hosted by Jewish and Muslim houses of worship, and other institutions of the two Abrahamic faiths.
When the project started in 2008, such extensive Jewish-Muslim programming was largely terra incognita. Earlier “Your Neighbor’s Faith” programs in this country usually meant Jews and Catholic and Protestants.
When the Twinning project started, the participants were 50 synagogues and 50 mosques in North America. This year, the number is more than 300, including a variety of Jewish and Muslim organizations on six continents. Thousands of Jews and Muslims in more than 30 countries are expected to take part.
When the project began, it was mostly one synagogue partnered with one mosque. This year will feature many citywide, collective twinning events with the participation of multiple Jewish and Islamic institutions.
This year’s theme is “Standing Up for the Other,” emphasizing both religions’ common status as minorities in many lands, and their susceptibility, respectively, to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
The steady growth of the Twinning weekends, while the influence of extremists in both religions apparently has also grown, shows that all communities have men and women of good will.
There is another, emerging sign of Judaism and Islam’s common ground. The Jewish Week, in interviews around the country, has found a still-small trend of mosques being established in Jewish areas in the United States, sometimes next door to a synagogue. In most cases, the newcomer Muslims have received a welcoming reception.
In Baltimore, an Ahmadiyya mosque opened last year in the heart of the city’s Jewish neighborhood, across the street from the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. In Skokie, a community near Chicago where many Holocaust survivors live, a mosque recently received permission from village trustees to occupy the former site of a Holocaust museum. And in a suburb of Philadelphia, a Chabad center was established a decade ago next to an existing mosque.
In each case, members of both religious communities say they have welcomed and supported each other. Despite initial wariness on the part of some Jews and Muslims, despite the perception of them being implacable opponents, neither side reports threats or graffiti or vandalism.
The recent experience in Sheepshead Bay was different. When some members of the growing Muslim community in southern Brooklyn proposed building a mosque three years ago on a residential side street, many members of the local Jewish community — the Jewish population there is mostly émigrés from the former Soviet Union — protested.
In rallies and in flyers, the opposition stressed such quality-of-life concerns as noise and traffic; the website of the Bay People, which is coordinating the opposition, stated that the “neighborhood residents … will not benefit from having a mosque and a Muslim community center.” But some Sheepshead Bay residents are openly against a Muslim presence among many Jews, reports the head of one Jewish community organization, who has heard comments like, “What right do they have to build a mosque in our neighborhood?”
In the city where the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place, where the controversy over the planned “Ground Zero Mosque” in Lower Manhattan enflamed passions three years ago, old fears and suspicions of Muslims — once strangers who to a growing extent are becoming our neighbors — have clearly not dissipated for some.
Building coalitions, identifying partners and fostering common values in various religious and ethnic communities do not produce overnight results. But, as the success of Twinning weekends and the acceptance of mosques in Jewish areas shows, the bonds that are strengthening the fabric of American society can find support in communities that formerly thought they had little in common.