A video was shown during a recent program, “Meet My Muslim Neighbor: Building Bridges, Breaking Bread,” in which Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith YouthCore in Chicago, told a story about Jewish comedian Billy Crystal and legendary boxer Muhammed Ali. When Ali invited Crystal to join him for a run at his country club in Louisville, Ky., Crystal told him, with some discomfort, that Jews were not allowed in the club. Ali was so disgusted that he never went inside the club again.
“In my mind, that is Islam,” Patel said in the video, “more than any prayer, more than any pilgrimage, the idea that when your Jewish friend is not let into the place you run, you refuse to go in also.”
The story was representative of the theme of the February 22 program at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction. The approximately 250 adults and teens in attendance spent the time discussing the importance of interfaith work in the United States, with the goal, according to organizer Rabbi Adena Blum, of bringing “the community together when there is a lot of fear and uncertainty.” The program also included readings about Abraham from both the Koran and the Hebrew bible.
“We wanted to leave politics at the door and stress what unites us,” said Blum of Cong. Beth Chaim. “When it comes to faith communities, there is more that we have in common than ways we are different. We wanted people to voice those commonalities and realize how much we share, and we wanted people to be able to share their fears.”
West Windsor mayor, Shing-Fu Hsueh, explained how the event meshed with his early goals for West Windsor, which has hosted interfaith activities for years. “I am very delighted because my goal when I came here was to develop a more clear sense of community and a sense of place,” he said.
Rabbi Eric Wisnia was pleased to point out that “The diversity of the United States is represented here,” and toward the end of the formal program Blum invited those assembled to sing the Star-Spangled Banner.
“We are blessed that we live in a country where Jews, Muslims, and Christians can live side by side in freedom and harmony,” Blum said. “Let us show our gratitude by standing as one community in singing our national anthem.”
Participants then moved to tables in the social hall. Each person was asked to introduce themselves and share their expectations for the evening, their fears and concerns, and their hopes and dreams. They were asked to speak personally and not for their faiths as a whole; to allow others to finish speaking before jumping in; to refrain from commenting on others’ words; to be nonjudgmental; and to give everyone a chance to speak.
Fatima Mughal, who grew up in Hopewell and lives in Ewing, talked to NJJN about her experiences as a Muslim in New Jersey. She said that she never felt singled out as a Muslim — not when she was growing up, nor when she a student at The College of New Jersey in Ewing Township.
But, citing what she considers a broad retreat from civil rights by the Trump administration and the targeting of so many groups, Mughal said, “Even after 9/11 [when American Muslims were blamed by many for the destruction of the Twin Towers], I did not feel the same kind of change in atmosphere as I did in this election.”
Despite her fears, she sees signs of hope that, “when these things happen we see other communities running out and helping where they can, with rallies and lawyers giving free services.”
Mughal added, “I saw lots of Jewish people coming out during the immigration ban, and rabbis willing to get arrested.” The goodwill came from the other side as well, noting the Muslim community’s successful fund-raising to help repair a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis that was vandalized last month.
Monzoor Hussain, who serves as khateeb, or sermonizer, for the Institute of Islamic Studies in East Windsor, told NJJN that he is concerned that the political climate is to blame for the seeming rise of intolerance across the nation: “Both the Jewish and Muslim communities are under a lot of stress in this country because the political situation has turned anti-Semitic and Islamophobic because of what Trump said before the election.”
Hussain said that his community is keeping a close eye on people they don’t know who come to their mosque, but he suggested that strong relationships in the community have a protective role. “We have cultivated very good relations with our neighbors — live and let live,” he said. “We want to show that we are a peace-loving people and set a good example for that.”
A second event in the “Building Bridges, Breaking Bread” program called “Empathy and Action,” will feature Tarek El-Messidi, who raised more than $150,000, mostly from Muslims, to repair the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. It will take place at Beth Chaim on Wednesday, March 20, from 7-8:30 p.m.