In Phoenix, indeed nationally, the Jewish and Muslim populations are not known for their closeness. Most often, geopolitical events and a mutual suspicion are at the root of this condition. As humble figures only looking to build and heal the rifts within our communities, it is significant that we partner now to foster more understanding, more harmony and better relations. No matter the difficulty, we must create opportunities for the Jewish and Muslim communities to partner with each other and become allies. This has been put to the test here in Phoenix, especially in regard to building a sustainable path toward reconciliation and increased understanding between these two great religious traditions.
We live in a precarious age where at every turn, it seems that discontent and uncertainty around the world have turned their wrathful eyes toward minorities and communities that are often seen as “the other.” With all of the international turmoil over the past few years, it’s easy to think that there’s no chance for bridge-building anymore. The refugee crisis in Europe, the rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and the radical polarization of political ideologies can leave us all feeling hopeless. Though these feelings of division are seemingly more pervasive, we have seen that the opposite is also true. Listening, respect, mutual understanding and empathetic connection; these associations thrive even when put to the test.
We created an opportunity for young Jewish and Muslim professionals to meet regularly and engage in dialogue. We have been doing this through the most ancient of traditions: talking and sharing a meal together. In the Jewish and Muslim traditions, the model of Prophet Abraham comes to mind, for in one of the stories of the Bible, as well as the Quran, Abraham opened his home to three strangers who turned out to be emissaries of God. So too, from this lesson, we learn the value of radical empathy for the stranger and the other.
Rather than being a one-off event, our young professional dialogue sessions in mosques and synagogues for Jews and Muslims here in the Valley have sparked an exciting renaissance for those seeking substantive meaning in young professional programming. Over the last two years, we have met at least six times to discuss topics ranging from Chanukah and hajj to racism and death. We have seen firsthand how the engagement between Arizona’s Jewish and Muslim communities has developed and flourished through our meetings. The venue and program of one of our meetings was changed last October so Muslims could stand with and support our Jewish neighbors after the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. Coalition-building, and simply being present for one another, is part and parcel of our interfaith work.
We are not naïve and don’t imagine that this is the way to solving all the problems and issues that surround our communities in one go. What we do know, however, is we had to start somewhere. In fact, through developing meetings centered on friendly dialogue, food and friendship, we have created a fruitful atmosphere where we call out hate while also breaking down the walls of preconceived notions about each other’s communities
These two communities have no lack of tension with one another globally, and ideologues seek to divide them further based on that. What a powerful message it sends for those committed to pluralism and acceptance that the Jewish and Muslim communities come together to serve as role models for the notion that religious freedom is deserved by all. It is precisely at a time when freedoms are being challenged that we must safeguard these liberties for all people. Now is the time to defend those under attack. We must do it for ourselves, for the sake of others and to honor our core religious and cultural values. For us, these words ring true and they ring loud. The diversity for which this nation is celebrated is worth defending and preserving for future generations. With the most modest of actions, there is hope for not only a renewal in relations between great religious traditions, but a more enlightened discourse for our community at large.
Local young professionals interested in being part of the movement toward reconciliation and connection, please join us on Tuesday, March 12 at Congregation Or Tzion for the next installment of our Jewish-Muslim dialogue. We hope you can make it! JN
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash. Azra Hussain is the co-founder and president of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Arizona.