As Jews and Muslims battled each other in the Mideast, some of their co-religionists in the United States came together Sunday to prepare food for hungry Americans, salvage the homes of hurricane victims and discuss how both faiths command members to help the needy.
Some differed, though, on whether events in the Mideast had hampered turnout for those activities and, more fundamentally, on whether any link can be drawn between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and dialogue efforts in this country.
Most of last weekend’s activities were part of the annual Weekend of Twinning, a program begun five years ago by the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Led by Rabbi Marc Schneier, the foundation promotes understanding and cooperation between the two communities through joint activities involving Jewish and Muslim institutions, including synagogues and mosques.
More than a dozen events organized by FFEU took place last weekend across the country, while others took place in Canada and England. Still others are scheduled to take place between now and December in other U.S. cities, as well as in Italy, Azerbaijan and Israel.
Spurred on, in part, by the devastation caused by Sandy, the hurricane that wreaked a path of destruction last month through much of the East Coast, organizers chose “Feeding the Hungry” as the theme of this year’s events, Rabbi Schneier said.
Noting that helping the needy is a “moral imperative” of both faiths, the rabbi said Jews and Muslims could be much more effective in helping their fellow citizens by pooling their energy and resources — work that would also build ties between the two communities. “Once Jews and Muslims stand side by side in soup kitchens to feed the hungry,” he added, “they will never again be able to see people of the other faith as adversaries to be feared and avoided.”
In New York, Sunday’s activities included a gathering of 30 Jewish and Muslim teens at the Flatbush site of Masbia, a nonprofit network of kosher soup kitchens and food pantries. Associated with Young Peace Builders, a project of the Kings Bay YM-YWHA and the Turkish Community Center, the teens prepared food that would later be served or distributed to New York residents who depend on Masbia.
A similar activity took place on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where 100 volunteers packed food at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, the site of a food pantry for the homeless. The volunteers came from such organizations as the Jewish-Muslim Volunteer Alliance, a two-year-old group led by a young Orthodox rabbi and an American-Muslim activist; Romemu, a Jewish Renewal congregation on the Upper West Side; AJC Access, American Jewish Committee’s young-professionals group; and the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals, or CAMP.
Other volunteers had cooked food for the packages beforehand — pasta, rice, chickpeas and vegetables — and still others distributed the packages later to homeless people on the street, said Zamir Hassan, founder of Muslims Against Hunger, the group that organized the activity.
Following the effort, many of the volunteers met at the JCC in Manhattan for a discussion about the precepts in both Judaism and Islam that grounded their work. Led by the founders of the Jewish-Muslim Volunteer Alliance — Rabbi Avi Hart, an assistant rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and Uzma Kaleem, CAMP’s deputy director — the discussion explored passages of Jewish and Islamic scripture in which some of the words sounded almost identical.
But one member of the audience, Sami Elmansoury, a prominent figure among young Muslim activists, told the gathering that some Muslims had stayed away from the event in light of the increasingly bloody conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
In an interview later, the 28-year-old Elmansoury, a New Jersey resident who is also active in American politics, said he was referring to individuals who he had contacted about attending the event but were reluctant to take part. None of those people were boycotting or demonizing the forum, he added, but they felt a lot less enthusiastic about the event than they might have felt during normal times.
In response to their reluctance, Elmansoury argued that “it’s even more crucial” during times of tragedy “to stand up and be clear about what we stand for,” he said. “Those who are going in reverse are making a big mistake for our communities’ futures,” creating a crack between Jews and Muslims that could lead to further misunderstanding.
But Hassan said that none of the Jewish and Muslim groups contacted by him or Walter Ruby, FFEU’s Muslim program officer, bowed out of the event or expressed any reluctance about participating. Likewise, Rabbi Schneier said he knew of no
Jewish organization that had agreed to participate in the Weekend of Twinning but then, in the wake of the conflict, reversed its decision.
Elmansoury said he also believes that the goal of Jewish-Muslim dialogue outside the Mideast should be “to help find an eventual resolution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He’d argue that the role of dialogue participants is “to lead by example,” he added. “I think our role is to prove the blatant fact that coexistence is possible.”
But others think differently.
Opening the forum at the JCC, Kaleem said, “There are things that are happening in the world that I don’t think we can solve within the confines of this discussion.” And in an interview with The Jewish Week, Afshan Haque, a Manhattan dentist who often talks to Jewish audiences, said that because she’s an American, not a resident of the Mideast, she doesn’t link Jewish-Muslim discourse in this country to events in the Mideast. “They have to sort out their problems,” she said, “and we have to sort out ours.”
In one activity outside the “Twinning” events, a vanload of Jews, Christians and Muslims from New Haven, Conn., traveled last Sunday to Sea Gate, a largely Orthodox community in Brooklyn damaged badly by last month’s hurricane, where they helped shovel mud from private homes.
Organized by Neil Berro, a former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, the effort left an indelible impression on Ihssane Khatib, 34, a Moroccan immigrant who was stunned by the devastation.
Khatib said he didn’t think twice about Sea Gate’s demographic makeup, feeling the same emotions he would have felt if he were working in any other community, Jewish or Muslim. Of what’s happening in Gaza, Khatib said he “wouldn’t frame the problem as a conflict between Muslims and Jews,” who he believes were never enemies. “The conflict is between Israelis and Palestinians.”