Interfaith exchange is on the menu

Rabbi Jessica Wainer shows Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation’s Torah scroll to
visitors from the ADAMS Center mosque. Photo by Jared Foretek.

It’s dinner time at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston and the menu is a hit. As attendees dine on falafel sandwiches and hummus, the conversation turns to the two religions represented at the dinner table, and what those religions believe.

“I was surprised to find out that there’s no idea of an afterlife,” says a member of the ADAMS Center mosque in Sterling, identified only as Rizwan.

Well, not exactly, responds an NVHC congregant. She explains that in some Jewish communities the concept of an afterlife exists. For the most part, though, Rizwan’s got it right.

Moments later, Jabeen Ghazani, another ADAMS Center member, fields a question from across the table about her headscarf. She jokes that her husband insisted she not leave the house without it, before explaining that covering her head is purely a personal cultural choice, separate from the tenets of her Muslim faith.

“My mother never even wore it. I chose this for myself,” Ghazani says. “The Prophet said, if you feel uncomfortable, people whistling or whatever — and I’m talking 1,400 years ago — they said, ‘If your feel uncomfortable, cover yourself.’ But it’s not a requirement.”

These are the kinds of exchanges NVHC and ADAMS Center leaders sought to create when the two congregations organized a month-long educational program that culminated in dinner at the synagogue Feb. 28.

During the three previous weeks, the mosque hosted an introduction to Judaism class, led by NVHC’s director of congregational learning, Rabbi Jessica Wainer. At the same time, leaders from the ADAMS Center offered intro to Islam classes at the synagogue.

The idea for the dinner was to get everyone together to mingle and answer any lingering questions.

Differences in the afterlife aside, Rizwan is intrigued by the parallels he sees between Jews and Muslims: divergent religious streams practicing different brands, the tension between fundamentalism and reform.

“The religion we practice is a function of the society you live in. The fact that the chief rabbi of Israel does not acknowledge the Pittsburgh synagogue — for somebody not in the religion, it’s like, ‘What’s he talking about?’” Rizwan says, referring to an incident in which Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau was perceived as refusing to call the site of last year’s mass shooting a synagogue because it was not an Orthodox house of worship. (The initial report turned out to the false.) “That contrast we see in our religion as well. People say, ‘You American Muslims are way off base.’”

By now, a panel including Wainer, Rabbi Michael Holzman of NVHC, ADAMS Center member Kiarash Jahed and Hanaa Unus, ADAMS Center’s educational coordinator, are fielding questions.

One synagogue member asks about the Quranic interpretation of Jewish texts. The Torah, Jahed answers, legitimized the Jewish people in the eyes of the Quran.

“The classical address to Jews and Christians in the Quran is … an address of respect, ‘People of the Book,’” he says. “It’s a recognition that these communities come from a divine tradition associated with a book that came from God.”

A congregant from the mosque asks the opposite: How have Jews interpreted the Quran? Holzman talks about a midrash, a rabbinic story, that may have borrowed interpretations of the Torah from the Quran.

“It’s written at the same time in the same area geographically as the Quran is being written, and there are stories interpreting the stories of the Torah — totally Jewish — but the interpretations are almost identical to interpretations in the Quran,” Holzman says.

The Prophet Muhammad was famously illiterate, but Islamic society produced great mathematical and scientific advancements. What explains that, asks a Jewish participant.

Well, when Muhammad lived, the Arabian Peninsula had few educational or cultural institutions, Jahed explains.

“The only education was poetry,” he says. But then, Islam moved into Persia. “The Persians just develop this insatiable appetite for knowledge. … In what’s now Iraq you had places like the House of Wisdom established, where the caliph would invite people from all over world to come and translate the most important texts that existed at that time so the Arabs could read them.”

Ghazani says she didn’t know many Jews when she was growing up in Pakistan, but since moving to Northern Virginia she’s been curious to learn more. The introductory nature of the course offered at ADAMS didn’t teach her a whole lot new, but engaging in this kind of cross-cultural exchange is only natural in the United States.

“We belong to the same Abrahamic tradition, so I’m always interested in learning more,” she says. “I didn’t come across a lot of Jews where I came from originally, but here of course, having children, going to school and meeting parents of all kinds of faiths just opens your eyes up to a lot of different aspects of people’s lives.”

The two congregations have a strong working relationship, according to members at the dinner. The synagogue regularly holds Friday prayer services for ADAMS members and this night is no different. After dinner, it is time for the final call to Muslim prayer of the day. As their guests pray, the Jews watch; for them it is an educational experience.

After prayer, the rabbis invite everyone to the synagogue’s sanctuary, where they show off their Torah scroll and explain its history. The scroll was rescued from a small town outside of Prague in today’s Czech Republic, where a small Jewish community had been destroyed in the Holocaust. If a Jewish community ever rebuilds there, Wainer says, Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation will return it.

Is there a certain way to hold it, asks an ADAMS member.

“Like a baby,” says Holzman.

“But you don’t burp it,” chimes an NVHC congregant.

Wainer and Unus spearheaded the month-long exchange, and hope to involve their congregations’ young people in something similar.

“Both communities are quite understanding of each other, but we wanted to actually turn it up a bit and ask, what do we actually believe?” Unus says. “So this was one piece to hopefully something larger, and now we want to start
the dialogue and hopefully start
some friendships.”

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