Raysh Weiss, who is to be ordained next year at the Jewish Theological Seminary, noticed last spring that Iftar, the evening meal that ends Muslims’ sunup-to-sundown Ramadan fasts, would coincide with the Jewish fast on the 17th of Tammuz. She and a friend, who had a strong relationship with the Malcolm Shabbaz Mosque in Harlem, where Malcolm X had preached, saw an opportunity for collaboration.
In July, after discussions about that summer’s Israeli war in Gaza and Jewish and Muslim worship services, several dozen members of both faiths broke the day’s fast — and mutual stereotypes — over kosher-halal couscous.
The event was Weiss’ latest foray into interfaith work. Growing up in Chicago’s Orthodox community, she had little exposure to other religions. But in Minnesota, where she earned her Ph.D. in comparative literature and cultural studies, and New York City, where she moved afterward, she’s brought Jews together with Muslims and Christians, not only for the sake of dialogue, but to work on such issues as affordable housing and discrimination against minorities. Her goal: building bridges to other groups, and building “community” within the Jewish world.
“Judaism is about obligation … [to] know what’s going on with our neighbors,” she said.
That has included establishing small, chavurah-style prayer-and-learning communities, designing and writing egalitarian Jewish marriage contracts for Jews uncomfortable with traditional, Orthodox-style ketubot, contributing to T’ruah’s recent Anti-Slavery Haggadah and serving on its board, co-editing jewschool.com, a progressive Jewish blog, and creating YentaNet, a pluralistic matchmaking group, that puts a special emphasis on Jews who often face discrimination on the dating scene, such as Jews of color, Jews by choice and LGBTQ Jews.
Sax appeal: Beginning with an interest in jazz she inherited from her father, Weiss has expanded into klezmer, which she calls “infectious” and “deeply emotional.” She’s formed and performed in several bands, playing saxophone, a skill she began refining at 7.
Linguist: Daughter of a mother whose first language was Yiddish, Weiss is fluent in German and Hebrew, and is “proficient” in Talmudic Aramaic and Yiddish. Her desire to learn her mamaloshen grew out of her interest in klezmer — “I wanted to understand the words,” she said.