When Jews and Muslims talk, sparks fly.
I am not talking about sparks of heat. I am talking about sparks of light.
That is how it was yesterday at the “Jews and Muslims in America” conference, which was sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute, which featured its Muslim Leadership Initiative. The MLI invites North American Muslims to explore how Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood. It encourages participants to experience how Palestinians, both inside and outside Israel, identify themselves, while exploring the issues of ethics, faith, and practice.
The all day program was held at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York.
Yes, it was on Martin Luther King’s birthday. The school employees donated their time on what should have been a vacation day — because the cause was so important.
To gather on a day in which we remember the possibility of justice and compassion that flows across all peoples; and to gather in a place named for the Jewish theologian-activist who once said, among many other things, that “no religion is an island” – these were blessings.
Add to that: 62 speakers – Jews, Muslims, and at least one Christian. Add to that: hundreds of Jewish and Muslim thought leaders, of all ages, including high school kids.
For me, there were two high moments of the day – both of which were completely unexpected.
The first: I am eating lunch in the school cafeteria, when a young man screams my name and runs over to hug me.
It was Khalil Abdullah.
The last time that we had seen each other was about five years ago, when I still lived in Atlanta. My young Muslim friend was working as a barista at my local Starbucks.
Khalil learned that I was a rabbi, and that information led to a series of miniature theological conversations.
It turned out, however, that those conversations were not small; they were, in the words of Starbucks, grande – maybe even venti.
Khalil had shared his dream with me – to create Jewish-Muslim conversations. I moved from Atlanta, and we went our separate ways.
Until yesterday. As Dr. King would say, he had realized his dream Khalil had gone on to the Hartford Seminary, where he was influenced by Yehezkel Landau — and, as you can see, Khalil is now on the seminary staff.
Lesson: we meet people in our lives. We chat, we hear their stories, we open ourselves up to them – and then, they disappear. And we wonder: what happened to that conversation?
The enduring lesson, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald in Tender is The Night : “You never know exactly how much space you occupy in people’s lives.”
The second enduring lesson.
In that talk, Antepli described himself as “a recovering anti-Semite.” He had grown up in Turkey, and had read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a child. He had burnt his share of Israeli flags.
When he started studying Islam and Koran, he stopped being anti-Jewish. He couldn’t reconcile his religion with his hate. He started meeting religious Jews. Antepli now spends more time in Israel each year than most American Jews have ever spent in Israel in their lives.
On the stage of the Heschel School, Antepli proclaimed: someone who doesn’t believe that Israel should exist as a Jewish homeland is anti-Semitic.
But then, Antepli completely turned the conversation around. He bemoaned how so many American Jews, in their striving for success, had left thousands of years of accumulated Jewish wisdom — in the trash bins.
Antepli wants Muslims to feel at home in America, and to become cultural players in America. But, he said, not at the same cost that American Jews had paid.
In fact, after the Pew study of American Jews, Antepli’s fellow Muslims called him and said: “Please tell us how we can avoid this fate.”
So, it turned out that the real purpose of this large Jewish-Muslim conversation was something that we could not have known at the outset.
It’s not only how Jews and Muslims can learn each other’s traditions and theology, which is always the first step in an interfaith dialogue (the Kumbaya moments).
It’s not only how Jews and Muslims can talk about Israel and Palestine together, and understand each other’s narratives – which is beyond Kumbaya.
And it is not only how both American Muslims and American Jews feel threatened as a result of the waves of hatred that are now passing across America – and make no mistake about it: Muslims are feeling very vulnerable now. Especially now.
The next stage of Jewish-Muslim dialogue: American Jews and American Muslims learn from each other, and teach each other: how do we stand up for our cultures in America?
That is the biggest question.
And when we tackle that one, Adonai and Allah will smile.