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Reform Conference Reaches Out to Muslims, Evangelicals

The head of the largest Muslim organization in the country is expected to address the national gathering of North America’s largest Jewish denomination at its annual conference next week. The speech is part of a broader push at the conference to elevate interfaith dialogue with Muslims and Christians.

Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, will appear at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial, which is being held in San Diego. The event comes three months after the URJ’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, addressed ISNA at its annual convention. Building on Mattson’s appearance, Yoffie is planning to announce a national dialogue and education program that Jewish and Muslim scholars have been developing together.

“We feel that American Jews and American Muslims need to sit down together and get to know each other, so you need a congregational component to that,” Yoffie told the Forward. “It’s not just a matter of bringing together a few rabbis and a few imams.”

In the past, Muslim-Jewish interfaith efforts have taken place on a small scale or within individual communities. Last month, a meeting of imams and rabbis from across the country billed itself as the first national interfaith effort. The Reform movement’s push is an attempt to encourage interaction nationwide, not only between clergy but also between rank-and-file members.

The appearance of Mattson at the convention is a triumph for Yoffie, who had insisted, in the face of criticism from within the Reform movement and from outside it, that ISNA was not a viable, moderate partner. But by attempting to push the dialogue from the leadership level down to the grassroots, the URJ and ISNA are entering difficult territory, testing the notion that congregants are as eager to work together as their leaders.

ISNA has been criticized in the past for its positions on terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the national umbrella organization has recently been moving toward more moderate positions — a shift symbolized by the leadership of Mattson, who is both a woman and a convert to Islam.

Mattson could not be reached for comment.

Reform movement leaders said that the response in the Reform movement to Yoffie’s ISNA speech was generally positive. Pre-registration levels for a panel discussion on Islam are among the highest of any session at the conference. Other Reform leaders caution, however, that Jews might not find the same level of interest in dialogue from the less-established American Muslim community.

“The American Muslim community is just not there yet. They’re still busy dealing with things that feel like survival issues to them,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center, the Washington office of the Reform movement. “So much of that community is still first generation, second generation, and still feeling its way through the organizational structure.”

Jewish and Muslim scholars have put together academic materials for congregations interested in pursuing a dialogue, or for those who, lacking a dialogue partner, wanted to educate themselves. But Rabbi Laura Geller, of Temple Emmanuel in Los Angeles, stressed that dialogue, by itself, wasn’t a sufficient basis for a connection.

“It used to be there was a Jewish-Catholic dialogue, there was a Muslim-Jewish dialogue, and the point was dialogue,” she said. “It’s important, but isn’t sufficient. I think what is really the goal of all of these connections is working together.”

The Reform movement’s interest in reaching out to religious groups with which the Jewish community has sometimes had contentious relations will also extend to evangelical Christians. Pastor Rick Warren, founder of the evangelical Saddleback mega-church in Orange County, Calif., and author of the mega-bestseller “The Purpose-Driven Life,” will be speaking at a workshop about community building, drawing on the enormous success of his own church.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, author of his own bestseller, “God’s Politics,” will be appearing on a panel about progressive religion and social action. Wallis has risen to prominence by arguing that evangelical values such as concern for poverty dictate a break with the religious right. More recently, Warren, too, has begun to speak about the importance of combating AIDS and global poverty.

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