By Jane Ramsey
Executive Director, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs
As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began last week, it was my pleasure and honor to take part in a special interfaith iftar meal at the White House hosted by President Obama.
During Ramadan, Muslims fast until sundown every day, then break the fast with a communal meal called iftar, usually shared with family and friends, along with invited guests of all backgrounds and faiths. According to sources, similar to Yom Kippur for Jews, fasting provides the opportunity for a Muslim to remove the evil effects of the sins committed by him/her and to purify his/her heart and soul. As well, good deeds are multiplied manifold during Ramadan.
A commitment to religious freedom
Sharing with Muslim friends many times over the years, I have come to deeply appreciate the significance of participating in one another’s traditions, learning, growing and deepening our understanding and our friendships. These are among the small acts of support that embody the foundation enabling us, ultimately, to act together to create healthy and just communities and to jointly tackle Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
Indeed, by hosting an iftar in the White House, as he has a Passover seder and other observances, the president is signaling respect for each faith tradition, and a depth of commitment to religious freedom and tolerance.
Joining me from the Jewish community at the iftar was Hannah Rosenthal, who recently was appointed special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, for the state department, and who also serves as rabbi in her hometown of Madison, Wis.
The evening brought many opportunities for personal interaction as well as interesting, touching and powerful moments from the backdrop of this extraordinary residence.
Spreading a message of deeper understanding
Waiting to enter the White House at the southeast gate I enjoyed meeting Fateama Bayat who does humanitarian work with her husband for her home country of Afghanistan. Also, Sadaf Syad, a writer and photojournalist, who came with book in hand for the president, about the many facets and faces of American Muslim women. These are messages she hopes and asked, too, that I and JCUA can help to spread.
As well, Laila Muhammed, board member of JCUA’s partner organization, Inner City Muslim Action Network, attended after just returning from a trip to Germany and Poland where she and 10 imans (joined by Hannah Rosenthal) visited two death camps and deepened their understanding of the holocaust.
Moving from the southeast gate, after four ID checks, the invitees finally were admitted to the White House. We moved quickly through hallways, past parlor rooms, walking by portraits of first ladies, Jacqueline Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, and into the reception hall just outside the State Dining Room, where the dinner was to be held. The guests gathered, visiting, eagerly awaiting the passing of dates and drinks, signifying the end of the day’s fast. Following an opportunity for Muslims to pray, we entered for dinner.
Throughout the evening, there were many more opportunities to share. I was moved by the reception of His Excellency Sameh Hassan Shoukry, Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt, who, upon learning of JCUA’s Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative (JMCBI) and Iftar in the Synagogue at Anshe Sholom this coming Thursday urged me to reach out to his Counsel General in Chicago so that he might be able to attend. This conversation was repeated with many others, including The Honorable Salman A. Farisi, Minister from the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia.
After being ushered in for dinner, the President arrived and delivered his significant address regarding religious pluralism, tolerance and the proposed construction of the mosque in New York City. [See the video.]
In support of the New York City mosque
The president’s comments made clear his support for the right of the Muslim community to move forward with its plans following the city’s approval.
Weighing in on this heated controversy, the president underscored the importance of the American values of religious freedom and tolerance, and reminded us of the sacrifices Muslim Americans have made in defending the country, their losses, too, on 9/11, and the importance of separating Islam and the Muslim communities from the distortions of the faith articulated by the terrorists. (Tackling the hate crimes against Muslims that followed 9/11 was the catalyst for JCUA’s launching of the Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative.)
Following dinner, the president demonstrated his gracious and friendly demeanor, circulating with relish and pleasure amongst his guests.
Reluctantly, the guests dispersed as the evening wound to a close. Leaving the White House with my friend, Laila Muhammed, we gawked at the beautiful parlor rooms, and remarked upon the work we have to do together in partnership back in Chicago, creating community, building upon our greater understanding of one another.