Push To Muslims Could Face Headwinds
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Push To Muslims Could Face Headwinds

In wake of Pew study, outreach effort seen as ‘the great challenge of the 21st century.’

With the Muslim population of America more than doubling in the last seven years, according to the recently released Pew Research Center survey, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” the Jewish community appears poised to ramp up its outreach to Muslims.

According to one prominent Jewish leader of interfaith activities, relations with Muslims Americans are now “the great challenge of the 21st century.”

Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious and intergroup relations at the American Jewish Committee, said the AJC, recognizing this demographic fact, is just one of several Jewish organizations that have increased their outreach to the Muslim community in recent years and usually found members of the Muslim faith to be willing partners.

“The overwhelming majority of U.S. Muslims are people of goodwill who want to contribute to the positive American mosaic and see interreligious relations as the key to the American ethos,” Rabbi Marans said.

Deeper ties with Muslims would constitute something of a pivot point for the Jewish community, as Jewish-Christian relations have long been the focus of the interfaith effort. But relations with mainline Protestants — once key partners with Jews in the struggle over civil rights two generations ago — have been severely strained in recent years over Israel. The Presbyterians, Methodists and the United Church of Christ have led the effort to impose economic sanctions on Israel for its perceived policies on the West Bank. (In what could be a good sign for some in the Jewish community, the percentage of mainline Protestants fell by 3.4 points since 2007, according to the Pew study.)

The percentage of Americans who identify as Muslims, 0.9 percent, is still far less than the figure for Jewish Americans — 1.9 percent, according to Pew. But the growing number of Muslims — they represented 0.4 percent of the U.S. population in 2007 — reinforces predictions demographers have made for a generation that they will equal or surpass the Jewish population in the U.S. in a matter of decades.

“With demographic changes, [Muslims] become an important factor in the lives of many cities” and in that of the cities’ Jewish residents, said Ethan Felson, senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

But a visible push for Jewish outreach to Muslims could run into some strong headwinds. Many members of the Jewish community tend to join other non-Muslims in this country in asking, “Where are the moderate Muslims?” and questioning what the fidelity of Muslims who take part in dialogue activities will be if the Middle East heats up again and public sentiment turns against Israel.

Representatives of Jewish organizations that coordinate joint activities with the Muslim community agreed that what they described as “the elephant in the room,” the often deteriorating political and military conditions in the Middle East peace process, presents a challenge that all the Jewish and Muslim participants circumvent by an agreeing-to-disagree approach. And then there is the increasing prominence of confrontational activist Pamela Geller. Her American Freedom Defense Initiative has sponsored bus posters that many people see as anti-Muslim and incendiary, and the AFDI sponsored this month’s Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, where two jihadists were killed in a shootout with police. All of that, observers say, further complicates the work of Muslim-Jewish “dialogue” groups.

The Jews and Muslims in interfaith organizations either accept that they hold divergent points of view on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, without allowing that disagreement to poison the relationship on issues on which they agree — or they intentionally postpone any discussions of the Middle East at all until both sides have established positions of mutual trust.

The latter is the policy of chapters of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, an independent, all-women organization founded a few years ago by Sheryl Olitzky, a marketing consultant in central New Jersey who has a background in social activism. She established the Sisterhood with Atiya Aftab, a Muslim attorney who serves as a leader of her mosque in the same area of New Jersey.

The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom brings together Jews and Muslims to pray and travel together and break each other’s mutual stereotypes. While it has maintained a low profile in much of the Jewish community, it has grown to more than a dozen chapters across the United States, including several in the greater New York area, each co-led by a Jewish and a Muslim woman.

The participants do not introduce discussions of the Middle East situation into their meetings for the first year and a half, Olitzky said. Participants agree that “it’s OK to be pro-Israel, it’s OK to be pro-Palestinian.”

The Sisterhood represents the new face — and the new faces — of Jewish dialogue and know-your-neighbor activities in this country.

“There is a recognition that the American Muslim community is growing exponentially,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which coordinates leadership-level activities with a variety of ethnic and religious groups – especially, in the last decade (in addition to such emerging groups as Hispanics and Asians) with Muslims.

Such dialogue and joint activities are supplanting the type of Jewish-Christian dialogue work that dominated interfaith activities for much of the last century, and the black-Jewish community-building activities that were common in recent decades, Rabbi Schneier and other experts contacted by The Jewish Week said.

The last few years have seen a growth in organizations dedicated to the Muslim-Jewish relationship. Most of them, like the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, are formed at the grassroots level, and centered around hands-on social action work.

Some chapters have done such social action work as preparing sandwiches for homeless shelters, said Faria Abedin, a Bangladesh native and Princeton resident who serves as the Sisterhood’s national co-president. “Both of our religions are deeply rooted in charitable work. It’s a natural commonality.

Abedin said the Jewish women she has met through the Sisterhood “have become part of my life. It breaks down barriers to know people as human beings.”

“Sometimes talk isn’t enough,” said Daniel Zeltser, associate executive director of the Kings Bay Y, a founder of the Young Peace Builders, whose teenage participants work together in local soup kitchens and do other volunteer work for the homeless. The teens, Zeltser said, “want something that’s local. It’s your neighbor.”

Many of these new Muslim-Jewish encounters take place in members’ home, instead of synagogues and mosques or community centers.

These activities tend to attract like-minded, open-minded members of both faiths who accept dealing with individuals whom other members of their own groups fear or do not know well. They tend to be successful in building “intense” relationships because of the “contact theory” of sociology, Olitzky said – you’re unlikely to hate someone you have come to know well.

Other examples of the recent increase in grassroots/hands-on efforts are New York University’s Of Many Institute, founded by Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and Imam Kahlid Latif; the Young Peace Builders in southern Brooklyn, under the auspices of the Kings Bay Y, Turkish Cultural Center and heavily Turkish Amity School; informal interfaith work coordinated by Raysh Weiss, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, including a break-fast event last year at the Malcolm Shabbaz Mosque in Harlem; and the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Center for Community Leadership, JCRC’s coalition-building arm.

A major part of the JCRC’s outreach activities is devoted to the Muslim community.

“We don’t do Muslim-Jewish ‘dialogue,’” said Rabbi Robert Kaplan, the Center’s director. Instead, he said, participants work together on such issues as services for aging immigrants, renovations of houses of worship, and education about each other’s religious requirements.

“More and more grassroots initiatives have grabbed hold of a similar set of methods – small-scale encounters, home hospitality, joint community service, visiting each other’s house of worship,” Rabbi Sarna said in an email interview. “We are seeing much less ‘sage on the stage’ dialogues between two religious leaders. People have come to recognize that this format does not really affect ‘the street.’ The most important discussions between Muslims and Jews are not about theology, but about lived experience.”

Olitzky said she intentionally limited the membership of her new organization, which she called the only such interfaith group in the country dedicated to Jewish and Islamic women, to one gender. The women “would pull in the men,” she said. “It’s really difficult to be Muslim or Jewish in the Christian world we live in. We find we share much more in common with each other than we do with Christian women.”

Next year the Sisterhood will sponsor a joint trip to Albania and Kosovo, to see living examples of Jews and Muslims who have protected each other.

Olitzky and Aftab will participate in a panel discussion after a one-woman play, “Unveiled,” about post-9/11 Islamophobia, performed by actress Rohina Malik at the 4th Street Theatre in Manhattan on June 4. The pair will discuss their respective religion’s perspective on issues raised in the play.

“One of the objectives … is to foster a dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim theatergoers,” Olitzky said.

She said the rhetoric of Pamela Geller “just reinforces” the commitment of the participants of the Sisterhood. Muslim and Jewish women continue to meet each other and learn about each other, she said. “This is the way we change the world. We are changing the world, one Jewish and one Muslim woman at a time.”

steve@jewishweek.org

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