Congregation B’nai Tzedek breaks fast with Muslim neighbors

The Muslim-Jewish Iftar at Congregation B’nai Tzedek on March 30. Photo courtesy of Lesley Levin

At Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac last month, Dr Talib M. Shareef, imam of the Washington Masjid, walked to the front of the sanctuary and called the 200 Jews and Muslims there to prayer. He chanted “Allahu Akbar” — God is great.

What followed the prayers was iftar, an evening meal to break the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“It was extraordinary,” said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt.

The synagogue hosted this “Muslim-Jewish Iftar” with Anila Ali of the American Muslim and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council, which fights antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments among Muslims. Weinblatt said he wanted to “shed light” on Ali’s organization while encouraging “tolerance” and “positive interactions” between Jews and Muslims.

This iftar hosted by a synagogue also featured some Jewish touches. The rabbi opened with a Jewish prayer and a quote from the prophet Isaiah: “My house should be a house of prayer for all people.” A Muslim caterer prepared a traditional Pakistani meal that was also kosher.

“The food was a little bit spicy but I think everybody enjoyed it,” Weinblatt said. B’nai Tzedek keeps its doors open to all people, according to synagogue president Barbara Guterman. Weinblatt said he hoped that congregants and their guests walked out of the March 30 event with the same impression.

“There are different paths to God. But at the end of the day, what we have in common can unite us,” he said. “A belief in the oneness of God is something we share.”

Guterman attended the event with a Muslim friend, Geeta Bakshi. Guterman said she was moved when the imam talked about how his favorite prayer was the Shema, the Jewish declaration of God’s oneness. Then he recited it.

“Stating that the Lord our God, the Lord is one —I had chills. Because that is a central prayer in Judaism, but it should be a central prayer in life,” Guterman said. “There is one God. It showed me, look, we’re all the same.”

But there were moments when the differences between the two groups rose to the surface. During a Muslim prayer, the men stood in front and the women knelt behind them. Guterman’s impression was instantaneous: The women look subservient. So, she asked Bakshi about it. Bakshi said, “Absolutely not,” Guterman recalled. The women were in the back to protect their privacy while they knelt. Everyone was equal.

Guterman said she began to understand.

“I learned so much just by being in the room, about their practice of prayer, customs, different foods, the different style of prayer,” she said. “We don’t kneel when we pray as Jews. But the traditional Muslim prayer is done on the prayer mat.”

Guterman also brought along two American University students, Tamara Listenberg and Lexi Aronin, the co-founders of the school’s Students in Support of Israel chapter. They walked in believing that the anti-Israel sentiment they experience on campus is similar to Muslim-Jewish relations in the wider world. But they left with their eyes opened, according to the Guterman.

Ali organized the event with Weinblatt. She described both the rabbi and congregants who helped as “so accommodating.” She also agreed with the rabbi and Guterman that it was “a good experience for both of us to get to know each other’s faith traditions.”

“These kinds of events and opportunities afford us the ability to see beyond the borders of culture and politics. It’s a human connection,” Ali said. “It’s when you make that human connection, you realize, ‘Oh, she’s just a mother like I am, a wife like I am, a woman like I am.’”

At the end of the evening, members of Ali’s organization approached her and asked if they could hold more events like that in the future. Rabbi Weinblatt felt the same way. “We want to be more welcoming,” Ali said.

“I would hope that this could be the beginning of an opportunity for us to try and work together and be able to find ways to be supportive of each other. To find ways where we can share values,” Weinblatt added. ■

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