Breaking bread together, literally, helped launch conversations between some of the county’s Muslims and Jews.
In mid-April, several women from the local American Women’s Muslim Association along with several women from Westchester’s Jewish community, gathered at Hartsdale’s Chef Central to share such dishes as biryani, baba ghanoush, kasha varnishkes and noodle kugel.
Nancy Zaro, assistant executive director of the Westchester Jewish Council, was inspired to organize that event — focusing on family traditions and food — after meeting several Muslim women at the county’s Thanksgiving diversity breakfast last fall. As Zaro said, the idea was to explore “our traditions through recipes and foods for festivities.”
At the Chef Central event, the women shared recipes that had been handed down from their mothers and mothers-in-law, discussed the challenges of cooking for their families, and even broached the topic of kashrut and halal. At the end, the Muslim women were even given challah loaves to take home, a gesture that touched them greatly, said Zaro.
“They were happy to connect,” she said. “They live here, their children are friends with our children.”
At a time of ongoing conflict in the Middle East between Israel and her Arab neighbors, efforts to maintain a dialogue between Jews and Muslims here in Westchester take on even more significance.
“There’s a real desire to include Muslims in interfaith dialogue,” said Caren Ellis Fried, the co-chair of the Inter-Religion Committee of the American Jewish Committee. “It’s happening, but not as much as the demand for it. Everybody wants their involvement. We wish we had more consistent relations.”
Some groups have been more successful than others at maintaining ongoing outreach and dialogue.
For Rabbi Joshua Davidson of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, in Chappaqua, the regular conversations among members of his synagogue and members of the Upper Westchester Muslim Society have been a significant aspect of his rabbinate.
“For me, interfaith dialogue is a really important part of my rabbinate,” said Rabbi Davidson, who worked with two women from the local Muslim community about three years ago to launch this conversation. “This has been a most wonderful thing. The members of my congregation are proud of this.”
In fact, when Temple Beth El broke ground in May for its new construction, the community applauded when two of the Muslim women came up to dig a ceremonial shovelful of earth.
The group focuses on studying shared sacred narratives, comparing texts from the Bible and Koran, as well as discussing lifecycle celebrations. “We learn from one another about religious practice and talk about issues of common concern in our community,” said Rabbi Davidson. “We’re both immigrant populations and minority faiths. We discover we have very much in common.”
Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan, chair of the American Muslim Women’s Association and a member of the Northern Westchester interfaith group, said, “The main goal is to bring each other closer through education. We realize that we are closely similar in many aspects, like cousins; maybe we do it a little differently.”
The group has met throughout difficult stretches in the Middle East, including the Gaza war a year ago.
“We have talked about the difficult issues, trying to create an environment in which people can speak honestly without challenging the legitimacy of anyone else’s pain,” said Rabbi Davidson. “These kinds of conversations — where you can share your sorrow and feel the other’s hurt and recognize that both, at once, can be true — are necessary if the conflict in the Middle East is ever to be solved. But our relationship transcends the headlines. It is ongoing and we’re really excited about it. It’s part of what we do, and it will continue.”
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