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Winning Friends of Other Faiths

The West London Synagogue of British Jews was built in 1870, in the middle of the Jewish West End of London, close to the Baker Street of Sherlock Holmes. By 1998, when I became its senior rabbi, the area had become the epicenter for the city's Arab population, a neighborhood many Londoners derisively called "Londonistan."

Our synagogue leadership made the location an advantage, ramping up interfaith activities to fulfill the talmudic teaching that one who makes peace in one's neighborhood is viewed as having made peace in the entire world (Sanhedrin 29a).

Here is what we learned about effective interfaith relations along the way.

Responding to Prejudice

Dealing with anti-Islamic prejudice plays the principal role in most Muslims' lives, as dealing with anti-Semitism once did in ours. When Jews protest Islamophobia, we can build friendships.

Sheikh Dr. Mohamed Salamouny, an imam who'd visited our synagogue, was attacked in his Central Mosque sanctuary during the scheduled conversion of a young Christian he'd been tutoring in Islam. The supposed convert took hold of his crucifix, wielded it as a dagger, and blinded the imam.

My speaking out publicly against the religious hatred that had seemingly given a deranged Christian "permission" to brutally attack the imam led to an unprecedented gathering of healing. Twenty-five synagogue members joined together with an equal number of Central Mosque members to break our respective Yom Kippur and Ramadan fasts together with a sumptuous feast of Arab and Indian delicacies. It was a one-in-30-years opportunity, for only once in three decades does Yom Kippur fall during Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim year. The Church of England's Bishop of London, the Lord Mayor of Westminster, and most of Central London's top interfaith leaders attended the festivities.

The Central Mosque's director general, Dr. Ahmad Al-Dubayan, recounted the Quran's story of the Prophet Muhammed's entry into Medina as the Jews of Medina completed their Yom Kippur fast. According to the Quran, Muhammed was so moved by Jewish piety, he declared that day in the Muslim calendar "Ashurah" ("tenth" in Arabic, corresponding to the 10th day of that month), a Muslim holy day celebrating Muslims' relationship to Jews (Quran 2:185).

Afterwards, we all discussed, debated, laughed, and made friends across what had once seemed insuperable barriers.

Mediating Conflicts

Sometimes when disputes occur between Christians and Muslims, Jews—acting as disinterested third parties—can mediate conflicts and thereby strengthen interfaith bonds.

About 10 years ago, Muslim parents in Central London demanded that their children who were attending Church of England-sponsored schools receive Halal food. In Great Britain, where separation of church and state doesn't exist, the government provides equal funding to religious schools of all denominations: Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu. Many Muslim parents had enrolled their children in Anglican schools, because they were considered academically superior, to the point that the majority of the Anglican schools' student body was Muslim. Anglican officials, however, asserted they did not have an obligation to furnish Halal meals because their schools were not Muslim.

Warm, personal Christian-Muslim-Jewish relationships nurtured over years were key to resolving the issue. At a critical point in a high-level meeting, I put my hand on the shoulder of William Jacob, head of the Church of England in Central London, smiled, and said, "Come on, Bill, what would Jesus say?"

Shortly thereafter, the Church of England obtained pre-packaged, certified Halal food, at government expense, to feed the Muslim students.

And the word on the Muslim street was, "The rabbi did it."

Forming "Rapid Response Teams"

The day before 9/11, Sheik Dr. Zaki Badawi, imam of the Muslim College, Nicolas (Nick) Holtam, then Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and I were enjoying lunch at one of our favorite Arabic restaurants. Little did we know then that we had in effect formed our own "rapid response team" to speak out together against the wave of Islamophobia and religious bigotry that would ensue just a day later.

On the Friday following 9/11, St. Paul's Cathedral broadcast a national service of solidarity with America in the presence of the royal family and government cabinet. Zaki and I marched shoulder to shoulder in St. Paul's as the representatives of Islam and Judaism. That Sunday we preached the sermon together from the pulpit of St. Martin-in-the Fields as part of the 9/11 BBC worship service, led by Father Nick, broadcast worldwide. The three of us emphasized our warm personal friendship and called upon everyone to redouble efforts to build mutual respect, celebrate differences, and partner in interreligious dialogue to defeat extremism.

If clergy would pro-actively form such teams in every locality, we might all be ready to combat religious bigotry together should the need arise.

Fostering Mutual Respect

Genuine interfaith reconciliation arises not out of tolerance, but mutual respect. Tolerance implies allowing the other to exist; respect requires understanding others as others understand themselves. This encompasses learning the others' customs, beliefs, texts, anxieties, even language.

Arabs in our neighborhood were amazed that a rabbi would take time to learn Arabic phrases and study Islam. They'd all ask me the same question: "How can you, a Jew, show such interest and respect for us?"

When Arabs interpreted my interest in Islam and Arab culture as evidence that I was "not a Zionist," I'd respond, "On the contrary, I am a Zionist, devoted to the revival and survival of the Jewish homeland. Understanding what Israel means to us as Jews, I believe that you deserve similar dignity and respect. Loving Israel's democracy and political vibrancy, I want you to experience democracy as well." And when they asked my opinion of an Israeli policy or action I disagreed with, I'd criticize it—while simultaneously praising the democratic vigor of Israeli society. My goal was to bolster their moderate backbones, hoping they'd stand up to their extremists. The worst problem in the Muslim world today is not the presence of Islamic fundamentalists, but the unwillingness of the moderate majority to challenge the fanatics among them.

In appreciation of my study of Islam, some of my Arab friends reciprocated. In the course of informal, daily interaction, we compared Muslim and Jewish beliefs and practices; Hebrew and Arabic. As friends, we taught each other.

Getting to Know People

The key to interfaith dialogue is to get to know each other as individuals. When you understand a person from his/her vantage point, navigating religious challenges becomes possible.

My wife Suellen conducted text study and dialogue between Muslim and Jewish women in our flat, from which, as a male, I was banished for the evening. The Muslim women removed their hijabs (head-coverings) and all the women opened their hearts to each other. One later confided in me that she wished to be a Muslim like Suellen was a Jew.

The women-only discussions led to many interfaith projects, including tri-partite dialogues at the West London Synagogue, Central Mosque, and the Church of England's St. Ethelburga's Centre. We also held interfaith services at the West London Synagogue and at St. Ethelburga's, though never at the Central Mosque.

In Islam, as in Judaism and Christianity, there are sharp divisions. London's Central Mosque, for instance, was under administrative control of the Islam's Wahabi sect as practiced strictly in Saudi Arabia, but the imams were all Egyptians, trained at Al-Azhar, the premiere Muslim university in Cairo. There's a significant difference in Islamic rigidity between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. At least a few of the Egyptian imams would, it seemed, have felt comfortable with interfaith worship on their premises, but because of Saudi control, the mosque could never host it. Instead, the Central Mosque sent members, even imams, to participate in our interreligious services. The imams comfortably chanted passages from the Koran in Arabic or recited them in English for us all to experience.

Dialoguing with Adversaries

In interreligious peacemaking, dialoguing with one's friends will maintain positive relations, but only engaging with adversaries will produce breakthroughs toward peaceful partnerships.

Take my relationship with Dr. Ahmad, director general of the Central Mosque. He is a Wahabi, one of the most extreme sects of Islam. By birth he's connected to the Sauds, the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia. By profession, he is a Saudi diplomat.

Dr. Ahmad was fascinated by biblical Hebrew's similarity to classical Arabic. We spent many hours together comparing Islamic and Jewish theology and texts.

Many times, tensions arose between us, such as when the bookstore at the Central Mosque was selling an Arabic translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Czarist anti-Semitic screed depicting a fabricated meeting of Jews plotting to take over the world. I protested vigorously that stocking such a vicious, fictitious piece of anti-Semitism undermined everything we were working for. Ahmad responded weakly that the bookstore was in fact a concession stand and that the mosque had no control over what was sold there. Challenged by the question, "What would you say if we were selling a nasty piece of Islamophobic literature in our synagogue bookstore?" he promised to see what he could do.

It was crucial to realize the radically different culture Dr. Ahmad lives in. Whereas everyone in our congregation supported interfaith initiatives, he faced active opposition in his community. A prominent Saudi had officially complained to the Saudi king about his friendly interaction with Jews and Christians.

Of course, Dr. Ahmad is not everything a rabbi might want in a Muslim partner in dialogue. How could he be, and still keep his job?

After the Protocols incident, many other Jewish leaders might have terminated all relationships with him and the mosque. But had there been a litmus test on Dr. Ahmad's attitudes or actions regarding Judaism and Israel before building a relationship with him, our communities never would have achieved all the good work we did.

And, as it happened, in 2009 Dr. Ahmad became the interfaith chair of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, making him the most important Muslim in national interreligious programs in the UK and a central player in Saudi interfaith activity worldwide.

Historically, breakthroughs in Christian-Jewish relations have been led by such Christian leaders as Popes John XXIII, John Paul II, and Francis, all of whose personal encounters with Jews earlier in their lives gave them a different perspective about Judaism than that of many of their peers. The collegiality Dr. Ahmad and I developed may also pay dividends for the Jewish people.

Appreciating Ritual Diversity

An appreciation of ritual diversity can also lead to interfaith opportunities.

Canon Robert Wright of Westminster Abbey, who also served as Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, invited me to present a Jewish perspective on the Eucharist at his monthly Eucharist Study Breakfast for members of the House of Commons and House of Lords. At the breakfast, I spoke to the Members of Parliament about how, when younger, I was mystified by the whole "body of Christ, blood of Christ" language in the traditional Eucharist ritual—but later, my misgivings had evolved into "holy envy." Bishop Krister Stendahl originated this concept to describe when one observes the devotion of the adherents of another religion, feels religiously moved, and says to oneself, "We don't do that, and that's something wonderful." My holy envy was that every Christian partakes in the Eucharist ritual.

Then I asked, "Is there anything in Judaism you feel holy envy about?" Several Parliamentarians mentioned feeling holy envy regarding bar/bat mitzvah, explaining how they agonized over developing programs to make young people want to be more socially responsible. In bar and bat mitzvah they saw an ancient tradition which could imbue in young people that very sense of ownership.

A number of Parliamentarians particularly envied the Passover seder, because it enabled communal participation and responsibility. So I wondered aloud, Perhaps the MPs would like us to arrange a Passover seder in Parliament? They were enthusiastic!

It took a couple of years to pull everything together. We created our own Haggadah featuring the traditional seder text in gender-neutral language and "echoes"—selections from other religious literature and other sources which paralleled the Haggadah liturgy. Commemorative souvenir seder plates with all the seder symbols and "Seder in Parliament, 12 March 2008" written in the middle were produced for all participants. The Passover menu, supervised by Suellen, was cooked by the House of Lords chef for 150 seder guests, including the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords.

The Bishop of London and an imam from the Central Mosque helped me lead the seder, and the country's national legislators left with a greater appreciation of Jews and Judaism. Indeed, sharing such holy celebrations strengthens social cohesion and the larger society's embrace of difference as a source of strength.

Taking the Long View

In interfaith relations, it is crucial to take the long view. The Islamic world is undergoing a painful internal revolution. For some, the "Arab Spring" signals a new Islamic relationship with the modern world, but in reality, culture and religion transform very slowly. We may well see at least another 50 years of convulsion, internal conflict, and sectarian violence.

And yet, having met great numbers of well-educated Muslims, I'm also optimistic about the eventual emergence of a strong moderate, modern Islam. It won't happen overnight, but it will happen.

Islam's transformation cannot be imposed by outsiders. It must and will be demanded by Muslims themselves. All over the vast Muslim world, that demand is a growing movement.

That gives us openings to reach out in friendship. And when we do, together we help "repair the world."

Rabbi Mark L. Winer is president of FAITH: the Foundation to Advance Interfaith Trust and Harmony, director of the Center for Ecumenical and Interreligious Studies of St. Thomas University in Miami, affiliated with Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, FL, and former senior rabbi of the West London Synagogue. In 2014, he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for his work in "promoting interfaith dialogue and social cohesion in London and the UK."