The tables were set with dates and water, the traditional foods for breaking the daily Ramadan fast, but this was not the usual iftar, often held in a mosque or Muslim community center. There was Rabbi Mark Cooper of South Orange’s Oheb Shalom Congregation reciting the Hamotzi prayer over pita; there was Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad welcoming the crowd and pouring water for guests; and there were people of all faiths and no faiths among the crowd.
An interfaith iftar on June 19 brought more than 100 people — Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and agnostic — to The Woodland event space in Maplewood. For some it was their first iftar, which takes place every evening during the month-long fast. For others, it was their first with non-Muslims.
“It’s a good thing when people get to learn about each other meeting in person instead of in the news,” said Omar Elshorbagy, 16, who came with his family from Bayonne. His mother, Walaa Elshorbagy, knew she would come with her children as soon as she heard about the event. “I want to show goodness to everybody,” said the Egyptian native who has lived in New Jersey for about 12 years. It was the first time she had shared the meal with non-Muslims. “I love this. It’s different, you know.”
The evening was co-sponsored by the South Orange Maplewood (SOMA) Refugee Resettlement Project, a joint initiative among three South Orange synagogues to resettle Syrian refugees, and Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Maplewood native. The three synagogues, who are partnering with the World Church Service, include Congregation Beth El, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, and Oheb Shalom Congregation.
While two of the three families who were resettled by the congregations since January came, so did many Muslims who have lived in New Jersey all their lives, or for many years.
Eitan Konigsburg of South Orange was among those who have taken an active role in the project. He and his wife Alex, members of Congregation Beth El, brought dinner to the first refugee family when they arrived from Iraq in January. “We were hoping they’d be here so we could say ‘hi’ and see how they’re doing,” he said. Although he hadn’t yet seen them, he added, “I love seeing everyone from the community come together and break the fast with neighbors and friends.”
Roberta Probber, a member of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, said, “I’ve been on the sidelines, helping where I can.” She said the iftar offered “a chance to meet everybody,” and she was interested to see what an iftar would be like.
Each of the three rabbis from the South Orange congregations addressed the group, along with South Orange resident Ashraf Latif, who serves as amir, roughly the president, of NIA Masjid and Community Center in Newark, Ibtihaj Muhammad, and Liba Beyer, a member of the SOMA Refugee Resettlement Project steering committee.
In her remarks Muhammad emphasized the things she valued growing up in Maplewood.
“What I loved most is how inclusive Maplewood/South Orange is and [how it] helped me grow into myself as an individual, and helped me learn so many different things about different people.” She added, “I’m excited we have not one but two Syrian refugee families living here. And it’s a blessing, not just for them, but also for us. It helps to make our community even more diverse.”
Referring to recent violence and terrorist acts, Rabbi Dan Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel put the evening into the context of the historical moment. “In light of events in Virginia and London, this evening is even more important than ever. There is something remarkable taking place here in South Orange and Maplewood,” he said. “It was just last fall that these three synagogues decided to do something unprecedented and take on a partnership with one another.” He added, “What began with the limited focus of helping one family of refugees begin a new life has now expanded and continues to have an impact, not only on the three families who are now our neighbors and friends, but on all of us.”
The focus was on community and food, of which there was plenty. Tables in the back of the large room were laden with Middle Eastern delicacies, and there were more than a few who made a beeline for the homemade baklava first, and the main courses second.
Izzy Singer, 16, a member of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, said she came at her parents’ insistence, but also because “It’s a cool thing the temples are doing and I wanted be part of it.” Observing the fare, she said, “I went to Israel, so all this food kind of reminds me of that.”
Faye Bovender, from King, a small town outside of Winston-Salem, N.C., spends four to five weeks at a time in Maplewood South Orange taking care of her 2-and-a-half-year-old grandson. Her son and his partner were among those who have opened their homes to refugee families, and she saw the iftar as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. “I think it’s amazing. If I was younger I would love to be a volunteer and get involved.”
Marwan and Sabeel Abulsoud, who recently moved to South Orange from New York City, don’t practice any religion but came because they have been volunteering as translators. Originally from Egypt, they both speak Arabic. They described feeling overwhelmed by the sense of community engagement they have found.
“It’s been so amazing to see all the different cultures and communities combine here. I’ve never seen that before,” Sabeel said. She acknowledged that she was at once surprised and not surprised that the resettlement project is sponsored by three synagogues. “Here it’s not just acceptance, like we have different cultures and, yay, we’re a harmonious community. No — there’s reach out, there’s embrace, and there’s so much collaboration. I’ve never seen that before. It’s remarkable.”