As the summer day’s fading sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows of in Evanston, women wearing the traditional Muslim hijab bowed their heads alongside men in yarmulkes.
Later, they sat down side by side at tables to eat, as the Muslims broke their daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan—a sacred moment known as “iftar.”
Some 400 people from as far away as Burr Ridge, Deerfield and Bridgeview came to Beth Emet last Thursday for “Iftar in the Synagogue,” an interfaith gathering organized by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. Originally started three years ago at a synagogue in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, the event has grown every year since it’s inception. This year, for the first time, three synagogues held the gathering concurrently, with roughly 800 attendees total.
“I think people want to connect, but you need a way to cross barriers,” explained Asaf Bar-Tura, director of programs at the Jewish Council of Urban Affairs (JCUA). “You need a good reason, an invitation.”
9/11 Sparks Formation of Jewish-Muslim Group
Iftar in the Synagogue provides that invitation, explains Bar-Tura, who has helped organize the gathering every year. He heads the JCUA’s Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative, a group that was founded in 2001—“the day after 9/11, basically,” he explains.
While the Jewish-Muslim Community Building Initiative has hosted vigils and discussion groups and advocated for social justice locally, Iftar in the Synagogue is special because it gives Jews and Muslims a window into each other’s faiths, Bar-Tura says.
“For many Muslims, this is the first time in a synagogue, ever. They’ve never seen a Jewish person pray,” he said, adding that the same is true for many of the Jewish people in attendance.
Muslims are the fastest growing religious group in Illinois, according to a 2010 study by the Association of Religious Data Archives. Since 9/11, awareness of their presence has been heightened—and not in a positive way, said , a Glenview resident who attended last year’s iftar in the Chicago synagogue and returned again this year at Beth Emet.
Sitting down over a meal can help to make the difference, he said.
“If I talk to somebody who has outrageous opinions about Muslims or Islam, I have one question,” he said. “‘Do you know one ordinary practicing Muslim?’ Because if you do, a lot of these notions can be expelled.”
Because Muslims are a relatively new group to the United States, most adults did not grow up with them as neighbors, classmates or coworkers, said Kadir, a business consultant whose wife works for Abbott Laboratories.
“People have told us again and again that we are the only Muslims they know,” he said. “On the one hand, that’s a good thing, because we think of ourselves as decent representatives of our faith.”
On the other hand, said Kadir, they’ve often felt pressured to be spokespeople for the Muslim community.
“Some Muslim does something outrageous or stupid, we had to explain it or denounce it,” he says. “Muslim organizations are just tired of condemning every act of terrorism.”
“There are people who are going to do silly things, outrageous things, in every culture and every faith.”
“What Can You Do About Public Discourse?”
Many Jewish people also feel that prejudice against Muslims has peaked over the last three years, Bar-Tura said, and want to do something about it. Trying to change society’s views seems overwhelming, however.
“What can you do about public discourse?” he said. “You can do something as a person.”
Bar-Tura believes the event has a ripple effect, both within the Chicago area and outside it. While many people who come to Iftar in the Synagogue might be open-minded about the other faith, they talk to people who don’t come, or bring people who wouldn’t go on their own.
“This is something that reverberates throughout the communities, and that has its own effect,” said Bar-Tura. “It sparks a conversation.”
Last year, a group from New York contacted Bar-Tura, saying that they wanted to replicate event locally.
“We’re hoping that these things become a model for other communities,” he said.
“We Are Enslaved to Prejudice”
Speakers Rabbi Andrea London of Beth Emet and Dr. Zaher Sahloul, chairman of the council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, stressed the event’s national and international implications.
“I remember the first meal my family had with Rabbi London in our home during the Israeli war on Gaza,” he said. “I remember how surprised and encouraged I was when she signed a statement calling to end the war and to end the occupation.”
During the four years he has known London, he said he was impressed with the way she and the local Jewish community stood with the local Muslim community when U.S. service members were involved in burning the Koran and during the controversy over the construction of a Muslim cultural center near Ground Zero, among other events.
Recalling his most recent meal with London—a Passover Seder at her home—he noted that each guest was encouraged to bring an item that represented liberation from enslavement, since the Jewish holiday commemorates the liberation of the Israelites as described in the Torah.
“I said when my turn came that we are enslaved to prejudice, to stereotype and to fear from the other,” Sahloul told the crowd. “We can only liberate ourselves by shedding our prejudice and our fear.”
Following the speeches and a service, Sahloul and London sat down for another meal together, this time along with some nearly 400 other Muslims and Jews.
Over hummus, pita, falafel and traditional Mediterranean shawarma meat, the room filled with conversation as one after another, neighbors introduced themselves to one another.
“What’s your name?” they began. “Where are you from?”