Ariel Burton, 2012 Summer Intern at JCUA
Several weeks before the first day of Ramadan had even popped up on my iPhone’s Islamic calendar, I had begun arduously preparing for the month of Ramadan. I took a “divide and conquer” approach to the laundry list of tasks I felt needed completion before Ramadan started to make my fast a smooth and steady one. I cleaned and organized my house, went food shopping for vegan Iftar foods, found a masjid on the south side of Chicago I could attend every Friday for Jummah (congregational prayer), organized my books on Qura’nic scholarship and Islamic studies, and even ordered a couple of new titles that would teach me about performing Taraweeh (special night prayers performed during the month of Ramadan) correctly.
Once I had completed the pre-Ramadan list I began writing my spiritual goals for Ramadan, setting the intentions to pray more, meditate, and read the Qu’ran. I even signed up for Productive Ramadan emails to keep me spiritually and physically active during the month of Ramadan, a daily email service which sends out suggestions to help make the most of one’s Ramadan. At the time I saw it as a way of reminding me Ramadan is not only about the spiritual journey of study but the building and strengthening of community.
The irony of creating both lists is I had left something significant off both of them: “Iftar in the Synagogue 2012” – an interfaith event I had been helping to plan as a summer intern for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs since mid June. The event which required Iftar committee meetings once a week, volunteer orientations at all three locations to go over the logistics of the night, finding speakers for each location, passing out flyers to businesses and religious centers throughout the Chicagoland area, and so much more. I had forgotten to list the event that required as much planning as Ramadan itself, and “Iftar in the Synagogue” was only one night.
In the back of my mind, I knew Iftar in the Synagogue had to be completed, but at the time I was making personal lists and I didn’t see it as an integral part of my spiritual growth. I didn’t see it as a hurdle I had to jump in order to strengthen my faith as a Muslim. There didn’t seem anything remotely spiritual about being the coordinator for the Iftar at Beth Emet Synagogue, being a co-emcee for the evening, or any of the numerous responsibilities that pulling off Iftar at Beth Emet required. It was a task I had agreed to complete upon accepting the summer intern position at JCUA, nothing more and nothing less.It didn’t hit me how wrong I was about that until the actual day of Iftar. I was running around Beth Emet, delegating tasks to volunteers, answering lingering questions, and helping with what needed to be completed. At some point, I went downstairs with my iPhone and started thinking of my opening speech. When I need inspiration for writing, I do a menagerie of strange things. In that moment I was aimlessly walking around the room which would soon be transformed into a Muslim prayer space. A picture hanging on the wall stopped me dead in my tracks. It was a photograph of the Spanish Synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic. Taking a second to marvel at the rich tones within the photograph prompted the inspiration I needed to write my speech.
I remembered my tour of the Spanish Synagogue last summer as part of a short-term trip I took with Hampshire College. I remembered climbing a hill somewhere in Prague, looking out below me and seeing all the Islamic architectural influences sprawled across many rooftops, and yet below lay buildings serving as architectural testimonies to Jewish life in Prague. It reminded me that JCUA’s “Iftar in the Synagogue” would be one instance of many where the worlds of Jews and Muslims would come together in the most interesting way. It reminded me of the perpetual crossroads I sit in as a Muslim woman who does Jewish Studies as her undergraduate major, and has plans to continue that path into graduate school. Most importantly, it reminded me that productivity is in the eye of the beholder. While Productive Ramadan emails may not have interfaith organizing as a top spiritual priority, interfaith organizing is the reason why my Ramadan has never seen a dull, listless moment. There is nothing more spiritually rewarding than seeing Jews and Muslims pray together and getting to know each other over food.
I used the crossroads of my life as a Muslim Jewish Studies major to help plan Iftar in the Synagogue this year. I now look to next year’s Ramadan as containing infinite possibilities for productive interfaith work between Jews and Muslims.