Jews, Muslims Forge Bonds on Christmas

By Jill Suzanne Jacobs

Published January 02, 2004, issue of January 02, 2004.
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While newspaper headlines describe increasing tensions between Muslims and Jews worldwide, a small group of neighbors in Cambridge, Mass. — Muslims and Jews who worship at institutions across the street from each other — tell another story.

“I want to prove to myself and the world that Jews and Muslims can work together, be friends and not fight. This is what our faiths teach,” said Hoda ElSharkawi of the Islamic Society of Boston. “It’s a misconception … that Muslims and Jews are always fighting.”

ElSharkawi, 29, an Egyptian native, spoke of how Jewish culture flourished for centuries in Arab lands under Muslim rule. “We need to break this current image … [and] start a foundation for the future, so that future generations will look back and see that Muslims and Jews did something together,” he said.

Congregants of Temple Beth Shalom and the Islamic Society of Boston have been studying and socializing together for about a year. On December 24, about 30 people from the two groups volunteered at a homeless shelter on the M.I.T. campus to help prepare a Christmas celebration — complete with a ham dinner.

“I’ve never had to handle so much spiced ham in my life,” Temple Beth Shalom congregant Gedalia Pasternak, a 27-year-old software engineer, said as he finished his kitchen shift.

Temple Beth Shalom member Diana Lobel and Naima Oriane of the Islamic Society of Boston chatted nearby as they peeled potatoes while others wrapped presents and a menorah burned in the background.

“This is the most practical thing to do, given that we’re neighbors,” said Betsy Kaptchuk, a Beth Shalom member who with her husband and 10-year-old son has long participated in interfaith activities.

The synagogue and mosque coexist in an ethnically and religiously diverse residential neighborhood in central Cambridge that also boasts several churches. The main point of contention between the different institutions and the neighborhood residents, noted David Dolev, Temple Beth Shalom’s programming director, is parking — no small matter in Cambridge.

As she wrapped presents in blue paper sprinkled with red-and-white Santas, Kaptchuk, 49, described how she and four other members of Temple Beth Shalom showed up with doughnuts at the end of a Ramadan celebration called Id el Fitr. “It was awesome,” she said. “We were able to participate in the joy of their holiday and to show our respect and enthusiasm.”

Fayez Khawaja of the ISB echoed Kaptchuk’s enthusiasm. With his three children in tow as volunteers, Khawaja said that he hoped encounters between the two groups would help forge friendships and dispel stereotypes.

“We [Muslims are] not what the media makes us out to be,” the 31-year-old software engineer said. “We’re religious just like you are… spiritual just like you.”

This project and others like it are the brainchild of Dolev, 40, who lived on Kibbutz Lotan in Israel’s Negev desert before relocating to Boston with his wife and children.

Temple Beth Shalom and the Islamic Society of Boston have shared a cordial — albeit distant — relationship since the Oslo accords. Dialogue groups began springing up, and there was even talk of joint kashrut and hallal certification. In 1995, Jews turned out in droves for a pro-Bosnian Muslim rally in Washington.

With the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, however, relationships waned. An Islamic day school in Sharon, Mass., canceled a trip to a nearby Jewish day school. The fledgling mosque-synagogue women’s dialogue group fizzled. Then the parking agreement between the two institutions fell apart.

But ironically, after September 11, 2001, things began to look up. Members of Temple Beth Shalom immediately reached out to the mosque across the street, asking if their Muslim neighbors needed any help. The mosque’s members responded in kind.

For one thing, the parking issue was resolved. The next year, in September 2002, Dolev took over programming at the temple. After his first week on the job, he attended a meeting of Cambridge religious leaders at the mosque.

Dolev spoke then about the possibilities of joint programming.

The program’s inaugural event, held last March, also took place at the homeless shelter. Since then, the synagogue and the mosque have come together for two community-service events and three joint study sessions — one comparing creation narratives in the Hebrew Bible and the Koran, one exploring the concept of revelation in the two faiths and another titled “Judaism and Islam 101.”

“I’ve learned that there are more similarities than differences between the two faiths,” said Pasternak, who has participated in several of the encounters between the two congregations. “When you start discussing religious philosophies, it’s like, hey, your understanding is pretty close to ours. We’re not so far apart.”

Jill Suzanne Jacobs, author of “Hebrew for Dummies,” is a writer and Jewish educator in the Boston area.

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