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Shul program builds Jewish-Muslim ties

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From left, Rabbi Steven Sirbu, Elijah Muhammad, Imam Saeed Qureshi, and Andrea Winters stand in front of Temple Emeth in Teaneck.

In 2007, the Union for Reform Judaism urged its congregations to embrace a broader vision of interreligious understanding, says Rabbi Steven Sirbu, religious leader of Teaneck’s Temple Emeth.

In a major initiative launched at URJ’s biennial convention, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the organization’s president, declared that “Jews are not well-educated about Islam, and Muslims are not well-educated about Judaism. In our increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, we can ill afford to segregate ourselves within our mosques and synagogues.”

Heeding the call for synagogues to reach out to their Muslim counterparts, in 2008 Sirbu’s congregation began a dialogue with a mosque in Teaneck, Masjid Darul Islah, using a curriculum written and published by URJ and the Islamic Society of North America. Working from a text entitled “Children of Abraham: Jews and Muslims in Conversation,” the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Committees of Temple Emeth and Masjid Darul Islah began a series of monthly meetings.

With 12 members from each institution, the group — meeting two hours on a Sunday, sometimes at one of the houses of worship and sometimes at members’ homes — tackled “segments organized from low-tension to high-tension topics,” said Leonia resident Andrea Winters, a member of Temple Emeth and co-coordinator with mosque member Elijah Muhammad of the dialogue team.

“As we got to build trust, we could embark on more difficult terrain,” she said, citing hot-button issues such as the status of Jerusalem and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As time went on, she said, “more and more stories were shared about individual personal experiences [like] anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia.”

Winters said that as the scheduled curricular meetings were coming to an end in December, “we discovered that we were only just beginning to talk.”

As a result, the group — with members from Leonia, Teaneck, Tenafly, Fort Lee, and Paterson — opted to continue through May. Since January, she said, “we have been engaged in topics of our own choosing, such as gender.”

Up to this point, she said, she and Muhammad have served as “co-chairs, co-coordinators, and process facilitators.” The additional sessions, however, have had rotating discussion leaders.

The dialogue team began with sessions designed to “introduce us to each other and to basics such as the Torah and the Koran and issues of charity in both faiths,” said Winters.

“The goal is to listen to each other, not to change minds,” she added, mentioning an upcoming dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She noted that there had been some tension in an earlier discussion on the topic, particularly as regarded “the perception of Jews as oppressors. [The Jews] were defensive about others seeing them that way,” she said.

Another discussion involved the immigration experiences of both groups, a topic that brought the members closer, she said.

Sirbu pointed out that the clergy of the two religious institutions have fully endorsed the project but decided not to sit in on the meetings from month to month.

“We felt it would be a better process if we took a step back,” he said. He noted as well that while a dialogue could succeed only in a small and closed environment, his congregation has sought various ways to share the committee’s achievements.

In the fall of 2008, for example, “Our annual Joshua Trachtenberg Memorial Lecture was on ‘Jerusalem: Holy City in Judaism and Islam,’ presented by Rabbi Phil Lieberman, an expert in Jewish law,” said Sirbu. All members of the mosque were invited to attend the event, held during a Shabbat service, “and there was a nice turnout. We were very encouraged and heartened.”

Noting that he enjoys cordial relations with the mosque’s imam, Saeed Qureshi, Sirbu added that last Chanukah he invited all dialogue members to the synagogue to lead a discussion for the entire Temple Emeth community on what they had accomplished.

The rabbi pointed out that the dialogue members from Temple Emeth had been appointed by the synagogue leadership “because we thought they would be good representatives” of the congregation. He did not know how their Muslim counterparts were chosen.

At the Chanukah session, “we had a great turnout and very rich discussion. The congregation didn’t know what was being accomplished. [Now] they had a sense of the worth of this project.”

“We talked to the congregation about what we learned from each other,” said Winters. But even more, “we were joking around [and] the congregation observed our teasing and playfulness,” she said.

“We’re looking for more ways to share the dialogue process and its goals with the entire temple-mosque community and whole community,” said Sirbu. “It opens our eyes to the struggles of peoples of different faiths, makes us aware of our own prejudices, and promotes understanding.”

One such effort will take place on Sunday, April 25, when Temple Emeth co-hosts “Under the Veil,” an interactive theatrical performance.

According to Winters, last spring one of the dialogue members saw the presentation at a meeting of the Ethical Culture Society.

“He loved it. So I brought it to Pace [University, where she teaches] and the students loved it as well.”

The presentation is intended to challenge audience members to think in ways they haven’t thought before, she said, adding that the program is free and open to the whole community. It is the dialogue project’s first joint initiative.

Performed by the TE’A Project (Theater, Engagement and Action), the show is based on interviews conducted by the actors in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and is intermixed with facilitated dialogue between the actors and the audience.

To broaden the range of those involved in the program, it is being co-sponsored not just by the dialogue committees of the two houses of worship but by their youth groups as well.

“The performance is intended for people of all ages,” said Sirbu, noting that while it was not appropriate for the youth to be involved in the dialogue itself, “it will get them thinking about it.” The young people will also help with refreshments.

The rabbi was pleased about the “enthusiasm” the dialogue team brought back to the congregation. “They brought back the understanding that coexistence depends on relationships. They don’t meet as Jews and Muslims but as a group of 24 people who know and like one another and enjoy the chance to share ideas.”

“Under the Veil” will be presented at Temple Emeth from 2:30 to 4 p.m., April 25. For further information, call (201) 833-1322.

 
 

Mosque near Ground Zero?

Jewish-Muslim dialogue team speaks out on Cordoba House controversy

On behalf of this newspaper, Rabbi Steven Sirbu asked members of the Temple Emeth-Dar-Ul-Islah Mosque dialogue team how they felt about the Cordoba House controversy and what effect, if any, the controversy might have on relations within the two communities. Below are some of the replies.

Stephen Friedman, a board member of Temple Emeth, said that while initially [before joining the dialogue team], “I had to overcome some trepidation and irrational fear, due to the frequent media association of Islam with terrorism that had filtered into my consciousness … after a year of dialogue I count my Muslim colleagues as my friends.” This does not mean, he said, that there are not differences needing to be addressed, “but the fact that as a group we were able engage in meaningful dialogue on challenging issues like the Middle East conflict was very encouraging.” Adding that he strongly supports the building of Cordoba House, Friedman wrote, “The vast majority of Muslims, like Jews or Christians, are good people living lives of faith, dedicated to their families and communities. The Cordoba Center represents moderate voices in the Muslim world, the kind of voices that we should all support.”

Elijah Muhammad, a member of the mosque, suggested that “the controversy in itself shows that as a country and as a community, we are not accepting to groups who are outside the norm of our thinking. Instead of protesting the building of a cultural center that will happen to have a mosque inside, we as a community should be celebrating our diversity, not rejecting it…. It was not Islam that did those (9/11) attacks, but a group of people who were on a mission that did not reflect the teachings of Islam.” Muhammad said his biggest concern was the ADL statement, which “really caught me by surprise. Being a group that was involved in the civil rights, I would assume they would have been more sensitive.”

Arthur Lerman, an Emeth member, pointed out that in 1964 he had been a volunteer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was in a Mississippi church when it was attacked. He drew a comparison between his experiences then and now, noting that his support for both the southern church and the Islamic center “is based on the furtherance of Jewish values: the right of our fellow human beings to live in freedom, and our obligation to live well with one another — without suspicion, in an atmosphere of open-hearted good will.”

Shaheen Khateeb, from the mosque, said that since she could not express her feelings as eloquently as those who have already spoken on the subject, she would quote several of them instead. She cited New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reminder that “Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans.” She also quoted CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria, who said, “The debate over whether an Islamic center should be built a few blocks from the World Trade Center has ignored a fundamental point. If there is going to be a reformist movement in Islam, it is going to emerge from places like the proposed institute. We should be encouraging groups like the one behind this project, not demonizing them.”

Applauding plans to build Cordoba House, team member Dr. June Moss Handler of Emeth called it “a practical and symbolic opportunity for the Muslim community to remind us that most Muslims seek interfaith respect and understanding and are willing to work to gain that consideration. They should not have to,” she added. “As Jews we understand this only too well.”

Marcia Shapiro of Emeth said she has been “quite upset” over the controversy “and especially at the reasons given for opposition to the project. For those who say that it is hallowed ground, I remind them that the site is a former Burlington Coat Factory,” she said, noting that while she would have had the same opinion even if she had not participated in the dialogue, “there is no way I could have felt such an emotional reaction before this experience.” Said Shapiro: “As recent events have unfolded, I have seen them through the eyes of my Muslims friends and I imagine how it must feel to hear that the mosque will be an ‘insult’ to 9/11 victims…. The Muslims I grew to know are good-hearted people of faith who are committed to their families and their communities. The true insult is to them.”

 
 
 
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