A Bridge Between Faiths

A dinner held by local Muslim and Jewish leaders was another step in an effort to foster understanding between the two groups


Men wearing yarmulkes and women wearing head scarves listened intently as Maqbool Patel talked about the way Muslims greet each other.

"Asalaam alaikum, peace and blessings be upon you," the co-founder of the Islamic Society of Baltimore told the gathering at Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills. "It's very similar to what is said in Hebrew: shalom."

At a dinner honoring both the Muslim observance of Ramadan and the Jewish feast of Sukkot, two dozen leaders of the local Muslim and Jewish communities shared their faiths Thursday. The event, sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Maryland Muslim Council, was the latest in a long-term dialogue between the two communities here that has gained urgency since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"One of the main barriers to Jewish-Muslim peace throughout the world is the lack of genuine, interpersonal, face-to-face interaction," Rabbi Jonathan Berger said. "I really believe that through these dialogues, we are advancing peace in the world.

"It's more than a nice thing to do," he said. "It's an obligation. It's imperative."

In recent years, local Jews and Muslims have sat down together to a Passover seder and celebrated the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr. Members of both faiths have collaborated on charitable work -- working on a Habitat for Humanity building site and volunteering at local hospitals on Christmas.

The resulting familiarity has led leaders of each community to support the other in moments of difficulty. Two years ago, when then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made comments at a summit of Islamic leaders that were criticized as anti-Semitic, the Maryland Muslim Council condemned them. The Baltimore Jewish Council recently made a donation for earthquake relief in Pakistan, and is planning more.

At the same time, the interfaith dialogue has made possible discussion of the most difficult issue between Muslims and Jews worldwide: the decades-old conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

"It varies from person to person, but emotions are so high, you have to use wisdom when you speak," said Patel, who is an administrator at Coppin State University. "One good thing about America is that this country has given people the opportunity to talk."

"When we started this dialogue, we laid down some ground rules," said Erica Hobby, the director of community and leadership initiatives for the Baltimore Jewish Council. "We said, let's be open, honest and candid with each other. We agree on most things. Where we don't, we can agree to disagree and move on."

On Thursday, after the Muslims said their evening prayers in a meeting room at Beth Israel, Patel explained the significance of Ramadan. Muslims fast during the daytime in the month in which they believe God began to reveal the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad.

Berger compared the Ramadan fast to that of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which was last week. Then he spoke of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, which commemorates the wandering of the Jews in the desert.

The group repaired to a chapel, where Berger led prayers in Hebrew and English. Muslims and Jews together read the 27th Psalm: "Adonai is my light and my help. Whom shall I fear? Adonai is the strength of my life. Whom shall I dread?"

Patel says Jews and Muslims tend to be surprised by the common roots of their faiths. Muslims believe in the oneness of God, and they recognize Jewish prophets -- Moses, Abraham and others -- as his messengers.

"This is the thing that brings Islam and Judaism closer," he said. "When you go to the bottom of things, everybody is looking for peace and harmony."

After prayers, the conversation at dinner was informal.

"So Shahab," asked Israel C. Patoka, director of the mayor's office of neighborhoods. "Do you lose weight during Ramadan?"

"I gain weight," said Shahab Qarni, of the Maryland Muslim Council, to general amusement. "We eat too much before dawn."

Qarni spoke of expanding the dialogue beyond community leaders to the wider population. Organizers are talking about an interfaith event next spring that would involve college students.

"These are the people who will be the leaders of tomorrow," he said.

Patoka expressed pride in the dialogue.

"Around the world, our brothers aren't doing this," he said. "This is something that makes Baltimore a very special place."

Patel spoke of a "blessing in disguise."

"One of the things that has happened after 9/11 is that people are starting to talk to each other," he said. "Imams are starting to go to synagogues. Rabbis are starting to go to Islamic centers."


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