When it comes to building a diverse interfaith community at 7,000 feet, Rabbi Mindie Snyder of Congregation Lev Shalom in Flagstaff has a secret weapon: the power of friendship.
Snyder credits her friends with helping so many firsts come true for her community, especially last weekend, when Munir Shaikh, director of academic affairs and planning at Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school in California, became the first speaker to be hosted by the synagogue and the recently opened Islamic Center of Flagstaff. The visit was also the first partnered event with the Murdoch Community Center, a hub for the local African-American community, and the first planned by Lev Shalom to compare aspects of Judaism and Islam in detail.
“Anything that has come to fruition in recent weeks and days has taken years of work and friendships behind it,” Snyder explained. “People have been thirsty for these kinds of conversations. I was trying to meet the needs of the greater Flagstaff community. Moving our programming around to different places where there were different interests, I thought, would be beneficial for our community, as well as our guests.”
Shortly after arriving in Flagstaff from Los Angeles more than two years ago, Snyder inquired about the local interfaith board. To her surprise, she discovered that an active board did not exist in the Flagstaff area. Snyder wasted no time in networking with other faith and community leaders. She formed Soul Friends: Coconino United Religious Leaders Association. What started with just six faith leaders, today has roughly 20 members and continues to grow.
“The group consists of like-minded people of different religious traditions who want to make the world a better place and want to understand more about one another, and want to come together to do things that are beneficial for the community,” Snyder said.
Two people she met were Dr. Omar Wani, a leader in the Flagstaff Muslim community, and Mohamed Mohamed, graduate program coordinator and an assistant professor at Northern Arizona University’s School of Sociology and Social Work. When the Islamic Center of Flagstaff opened its doors for the first time a few weeks ago, Wani called Snyder and asked if she would like to say a few words. The pair had already begun planning a weekend of events built around Shaikh’s visit.
Snyder has known Shaikh for many years, originally having met him while living in California. She brought Shaikh to town before to speak to one of Mohamed’s classes, and was excited to bring him back to engage with a non-academic audience. Due to her established relationship with the Islamic community leadership, they enthusiastically agreed.
Shaikh participated in four events as part of the visit. The first day he spoke at the Islamic Center for an event billed as “Empathy Meets Knowledge, Activating Cultural Competency of Islam,” during which he explored ways to improve education and understanding about Islamic religious and cultural traditions.
“Part of the discourse is, how do we continue to integrate within American society through educating average Americans about not only what Islam is, but what is Muslim-American life like,” Shaikh said. “It dovetails into how we as Americans talk about the issue of immigration and whether immigration is a positive contribution to America and its evolution or not.
“In the current climate there’s been pushback against that notion. I personally don’t put a lot of stock in the success of that, because I don’t think that the clock can be turned back in regards to the increasing pluralism in America and the increasing understanding that is happening in different communities around the country, including here in Flagstaff.”
The next event, the “Inter-Religious and Multi-Cultural Seder and Literary Exploration of a Higher Love,” was held that evening at the Murdoch Community Center, whose mission is to maintain the legacy and diverse cultural history of Flagstaff’s Southside neighborhood, the traditional locus of the city’s African-American community. Located in a building that once housed the first African-American school in Flagstaff and run by the Southside Neighborhood Association, the association’s president is Deb Harris, another of Snyder’s friends. The seder promoted understanding and connections between the city’s Jewish, Islamic and African-American communities.
The next day saw two events, both hosted at Congregation Lev Shalom. The first program, “Exploring Prophetic Traditions: Moses Meets Mohammed,” was a conversation between Snyder and Shaikh in which they compared Judaism’s and Islam’s primary prophets. They also discussed the great esteem Islam affords Moses, who Shaikh said was the most frequently mentioned individual in the Koran.
The final event, “Exploring the Law: Sharia Meets Talmud,” saw the pair again comparing the two faiths, this time focusing on their legal and scholarly traditions. Shaikh spent much of the time dispelling myths about what exactly sharia is, noting that the word has often taken on a negative implication due to its use as a talking point by those with Islamaphobic agendas.
In spite of an uptick in anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents across the country, Shaikh said he is hopeful.
“Anti-Semitism is alive and well and it does dovetail with the other kinds of racism that exists,” Shaikh said. “I think in the American context there’s a lot of solidarity between typical Jewish Americans and Muslim Americans, because they do see that they’re in the same kind of boat in their dealing with this kind of nativist mentality.
“I think that solidarity is real,” he said. “I think that it spans many groups, whether it’s Latino, African-American, Jewish, Muslim and even white allies.” JN