The foyer of Herzl-Ner Tamid is dark save for a circle of lit tea lights on a table. It’s February, and the room is chilly. A small group gazes at the candles as a Jewish woman offers a personal prayer for healing and unity. A Muslim woman scrolls through her phone and locates a verse from the Quran: “The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly white star lit from the oil of a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light.”
For the past five years, this dedicated group has been meeting monthly on Sunday nights, alternating between Herzl-Ner Tamid on Mercer Island and the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS) in Redmond. The participants — about 20 Jews and Muslims — are particularly forlorn on this evening. The “travel ban” has been lifted but a replacement order waits in the wings, and bomb threats are being called into Jewish community centers around the country with increased frequency. The topic tonight is “what we struggle with in our traditions,” but after several thoughtful reflections, the conversation inevitably evolves into a discussion about the current political climate.
A sense of urgency for a Jewish-Muslim alliance has emerged lately. In November, the Islamic Society of North America and AJC partnered up to form the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council. In January, a photo of a Jewish man and Muslim man, their young children on their shoulders at a protest at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, went viral, and the families became friendly. When a St. Louis Jewish cemetery was vandalized, two Muslim Americans raised $80,000 in 24 hours for its repair. When a Texas mosque burned down, the Jewish community gave it the keys to their synagogue. Every day it seems there’s a new story about one group supporting the other.
“People in our community feel protective of the Muslim community,” says Congregation Kol Ami’s Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg. Kol Ami and Bear Creek United Methodist, the church it shares space with, work alongside Eastside mosques north of the 520 bridge. Kinberg is also trying to open a local chapter of Sisterhood Salaam Shalom, a national network of Jewish and Muslim women.
For now, the overarching issues facing American Jews and Muslims seem to be outweighing the Israel-shaped elephant in the room. “There was a period of time when the Israel issue got to be too divisive,” says Diane Baer, who spearheads interfaith work at Temple Beth Am. But after September 11, 2001, the temple made a concerted effort to reach out to the Idriss mosque in nearby Northgate. After the Federation shooting, Idriss’s imam came to Shabbat services, and when the mosque was threatened, the temple wrote a letter of support. “The fact that the letter was read aloud to the mosque community at a Friday prayer service and incorporated into the sermon message was, to us, strong confirmation of our friendship and support of one another,” Baer says.
Rania Hussein, the executive director of MAPS-MCOC — Many Cultures One Community, a program within MAPS that focuses on diversity — says that political controversies haven’t come up, but if they do, they would be handled professionally and respectfully. MCOC partnered with Temple Beth Am in March for a screening of Arranged, a film about a Jewish woman and a Muslim woman becoming friends in New York. “In my opinion, the interfaith work is an important cornerstone in the development of an inclusive and diverse community where differences are respected and similarities are celebrated to bring people together,” says Hussein.
When the conflict has come up, though, it hasn’t shut down the well-built cooperation. One night, after facilitating the interfaith group for a few years, Herzl-Ner Tamid’s Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum turned to the Muslim participants. “Forget about specific borders,” he said. “Do you believe that the Jewish people have a moral right to sovereignty on any piece of the land we call Israel?” No hands went up.
It was a moment of truth. What could all this work be for, if Jews have no right to self-determination in Israel? Yet no one dropped out. “In the end,” Rosenbaum says, “I decided, look, we have a lot of work to do. These are good people. This is a long process. This is generations.”
“Muslims and Jews share the same ethical universal values connecting us to family and community service,” says Farida Hakim, who is active in interfaith programming around the region. She recognizes that they must sometimes respectfully disagree on politics. “We eat rugelach together,” she adds. “That’s my favorite dessert.” This might be the best approach for now. “Israel can’t be at the center,” Kinberg says. “We can’t lead with this issue. It’s about our own democracy.”
Rosenbaum doesn’t believe the difficult conversations need to be avoided. He prefers to take the long view. “When Theodor Herzl started, what worked? Nothing,” he says. “If the Jewish people could build the state, why can’t we do this? This is a moment in time when these Muslim-Jewish dialogue efforts need to be increased exponentially.”