Muslim-Jewish interfaith exchange reveals common ground

Congregants from Old York Rd. Temple Beth Am in Jenkintown visit the North Penn Mosque in Lansdale to learn about the Muslim religion, observe a prayer session and share a traditional meal on January 8, 2017.

Haroon Rashid, a Muslim from North Penn Mosque in Lansdale, and Fred Goldstein, a Jew from Old York Road Temple-Beth Am synagogue in Abington, met as mentors at an Interfaith Center of Philadelphia youth conference in 2015 and quickly became kindred souls.

When they visited Rashid's mosque during the conference, Goldstein asked about a collection box he saw. Rashid said it was a Sadaqah box, used to collect money for the poor. Goldstein said, "When we go to my synagogue, I'll show you a Tzedakah box, where we collect money for the poor."

That was one of many common threads between Judaism and Islam that the two new friends discovered as "Haroon put his arm around me and said, 'I thought we were cousins,' " Goldstein recalled Sunday. "That day for me was actually life changing."

Discovery of common ground was also on the agenda Sunday, when 46 members of Temple-Beth Am visited North Penn Mosque to share a meal of lamb, beef, rice, and chickpeas; observe the afternoon prayer service led by Imam Abu Rashad; hear Imam Mujammil Zakir explain the basic tenets of Islam; and learn that jihad isn't necessarily what they thought it was.

After alternating flawlessly between Arabic and English to discuss shared Islamic and Jewish respect for seminal figures such as Adam and Eve, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, and the similar wish for peace in the greetings shalom and salaam alaikum, Zakir paused and said, "Jihad."

He looked around the room, smiled, and gently teased his listeners, "When we hear that word, we sometimes wake up if we've been sleeping."

Then, turning serious, he said, "Jihad doesn't mean to go on a battlefield and fight. It means you struggle in your heart" to meet God's standard of goodness.

That struggle might be between relaxing at home after a tiring work week instead of venturing out into the cold to go to the mosque, he said, adding "Who made the jihad? People who came to the afternoon prayer. That is jihad."

Syed Afzal, the mosque's president, welcomed visitors by saying, "We are blessed with your presence," and noted that the mosque's members in the room included people from India, Pakistan, Senegal, and Bangladesh.

"This is a beautiful gathering. I'm sure all of you came from another part of the world at one time or another. And now," he said dramatically, "the most important item of the day. What is that? Food!"

He began the meal by breaking flatbread with Beth Am's Rabbi Robert Leib, who offered a blessing in Hebrew. Afzal looked at his Muslim and Jewish audience and said, "We are all the offspring of one pair: Adam, peace be upon him; and Eve, peace be upon her." Then he worked the lunch crowd, asking how the food was and joking, "If it's good, I cooked it."

Lily Rothman runs Beth Am's Lincow Institute for Adult Jewish Studies, with her husband, Paul, and helped organize the mosque visit. She said its purpose was "to help get the whole sense of the unknown out of the way. I think if we have a level of comfort with each other, we'll be more at peace with each other. The more you know, the more you understand and appreciate differences, and the more you eliminate misunderstanding and fear. The bottom line is: we're all human beings."

The afternoon of fellowship ended with women from Beth Am spontaneously serenading their Muslim hosts with a Hebrew song that translated as "How beautiful it is when brothers and sisters come together."

Then the congregants who Leib affectionately calls the "Beth Amniks" invited their Muslim hosts to come to the synagogue for a future interfaith visit. Leib and Afzal hugged.

And the two friends who started it all, Rashid and Goldstein, were ecstatic. Rashid said, "I liked Fred immediately for his exuberance, his magnanimity, and his concern for mankind."

Goldstein, his voice thick with emotion, said, "Our goal is to make our country, make our world, just a little bit safer for our grandchildren. When you talk about what can each of us do, this is it."