Sharing Sacred Space: Muslims and Jews at Iftar in the Synagogue 2010

By Aaron B. Cohen
Guest Columnist

Aaron CohenFriday, Aug. 20, 2010 — Last night my wife and I attended the Iftar at the Synagogue, organized by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and a number of other Jewish and mainstream Muslim groups in the city. What a blessed event—literally. It was the first time in a long time that I felt the immediate urge to participate in something that seemed crucial. [See photos from Iftar in the Synagogue.]

For Jews and Muslims what is the alternative to sitting together and attempting to establish relationships? It’s not an attractive alternative to be sure. There are hard and vexing issues between us that need to be resolved, issues that are not entirely—and perhaps not even slightly—based on each group adhering to different religious beliefs (although religion certainly is a heady and at times toxic part of the mix).

Those issues may or may not be resolved through personal connections; sometimes conflicts of interest have lives outside of the individuals who experience—and indeed may wish to resolve—them.

But one thing is certain: when people of good faith join together in an exercise that brings them into the orbit of the “other,” where they experience one another as human beings with like needs, an act of holiness occurs.

My hat goes off to the Muslims who came to Anshe Sholom last night, for surely they are men and women (and children!) of goodwill who each may have had their own Rubicon to pass. These were Muslims who felt the need within their own hearts to put themselves in the orbit of Jews, who made a conscious choice to reject the poisoning of the well of those who savagely attack Jews.

Similarly, the Jews who attended put aside fears and prejudices, and opened themselves to the experience that there are Muslims who desire encounter, who feel kinship, and who are willing to occupy common ground.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin expressed the notion that the encounter, for Jews, enhances our own understanding of what is holy, that sharing Ramadan with Muslims gives meaning to our Elul, a season of introspection. Our own humanity exists in the context of that of others; why not acknowledge that simple and sacred fact?

There are those in the Jewish community who feel nothing but fear and trepidation when it comes to the world of Islam. Without doubt there is ample reason in the world today for reservation. But it is not Islam (or Judaism, or Christianity) that should be feared, but rather those who derive from any particular religion a triumphalist message that theirs is the only true path, and that those who do not fall in line must be vanquished or destroyed.

The message I experienced at Iftar at the Synagogue is that there are many Muslims with whom we share public space in America, who also are willing to share sacred space with us and who hope only to vanquish, as do I, the evil spirit of demonization gripping all too many at this fraught time.

Aaron B. Cohen is a journalist living in Evanston, Ill.

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