Interfaith lessons: What the Jewish community has taught one Muslim convert

In Autumn 2016, I moved from the Midlands and sleepy Staffordshire to the hustle and bustle of London. Having moved to a more diverse, vibrant area of the country and being curious about other faiths (particularly Judaism), I started to notice a visible Jewish presence in and around the city, spotting Jewish brothers with payot curls or kippahs. Back home, this was not something you ever really saw. Now living in London and having been curious about Judaism for a while, after a quick Google search I contacted West London Synagogue to see how I could find out more about my Abrahamic brothers and sisters.

I subsequently joined the synagogue’s Jewish-Muslim interfaith women’s group and during our first meeting eagerly borrowed a book: Judaism for Dummies. Yes – I really was starting from zero! A few pages in and I started to understand something which would teach me not only about Judaism but also my own faith: the richness of diversity.

Liberal Judaism, Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Hasidic Jews, atheist Jews, secular Jews… The great (sometimes seemingly contradictory) diversity was apparent and very intriguing – if at first confusing!

Yet, as I spent more time at the synagogue (later becoming co-chair of the ladies’ group) and attended various interfaith events, I discovered exactly what this meant. I learnt that Judaism was incredibly rich and diverse – not just culturally but religiously. What’s more – such diversity was no hidden secret or elephant in the room! Visiting a reform synagogue, led by a male-female board of rabbis, which welcomed with open arms diverse members of both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, including LGBT devotees and non-Jewish spouses, I witnessed how the synagogue actively embraced diversity and didn’t shy away from debate.

Elizabeth Arif-Fear (2)In fact, questioning, debating and discussion were seen as such positive (not troublesome) elements of their faith that one of the recurring jokes at interfaith events centred around how disagreement is almost a marker of the Jewish community! Take two people with two different views to a rabbi and you’ll find the rabbi will declare that there’s no one answer. Difference of opinion is not seen as a problem but instead an eye opener.

Now when I think of Islam, whilst there is diversity – and a much richer diversity than many people realise – there seems to be somewhat of a shying away from questioning and inclusivity of the “non-traditional” or “mainstream”. Whilst I cannot generalise, and of course my experience of the British Jewish community seems to be mostly of liberal/reform Judaism and there is indeed a wide range of “branches” and views within both faiths, there appears to be far less inclusivity and debate, discussion and search of knowledge within the Muslim community. Often questioning and differing views are deemed as ignorant, overly liberal or even heretical.

At a recent event on “Islam vs. Islamism” held by Faith Matters, Dilwar Hussain (founding chair of New Horizons in British Islam) highlighted that the period in when Islam really “flourished” was during the “Golden Era” in Al-Andalus. In this era, the Muslim community practised a tolerant, explorative, enlightened and socially open form of Islam. This community accepted – not restricted – diversity.

So, what has my interfaith experience taught me? It’s highlighted that respecting and including diversity within our faith, given the current global socio-political climate is more important than ever. Diversity is something to be proud of. It doesn’t “water-down” Islam. It doesn’t threaten the Muslim community. Quite the opposite – it helps it flourish.

Credits and acknowledgements

This blog feature was first published by 3 Faiths Forum on 22/08/2017 (c)

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The Big Iftar: Breaking Bread amongst Friends

West London Synagogue (WLS) has long been a centre for members of different faith communities to come together and build bridges of mutual understanding, faith and friendship, and I’m delighted to have attended one of WLS’ recent interfaith gatherings.

Whilst Muslims are currently celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, where we fast from sunrise to sunset in remembrance of the poor and needy and celebrate the first revelation of the Qur’an, our Jewish brothers and sisters have also recently celebrated the festival of Shavuot, marking the monumental moment when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The combination of these two festivals this year shows that as members of the Abrahamic family, we really do have more in common than many may realise. Every year, our Jewish neighbours fast for 24 hours during Yom Kippur, whilst for Muslims, Shavuot reminds us of the importance of Prophet Moses and the Torah within Islam.

To mark the joint celebration and bring together the two communities, WLS hosted a joint Tikkun Leil Shavuot study night and Big Iftar, open for all to attend. The evening started with an Erev Shavuot combo service and Q&A debate which I, alongside other members of the Muslim and Jewish communities, thoroughly enjoyed. We then moved to the dining hall as 250+ of us united for iftar – the evening meal following the breaking of our fast.

20170530_223149.jpgWith everyone sat side by side amongst members of both faith communities, the hall had a joyful lively buzz of chatter as everyone got to know one another. The dinner consisted of a lovely mixture of Middle Eastern food including hummous, falafel, bread and a range of salads. As we broke bread together (dipped into hummous of course!), we learnt about each other’s faiths, with further reflections on the meaning of Ramadan and the importance of interfaith unity by both Rabbi Helen and Sheikh Ibrahim Khalil Baye Nass.

Enjoining in a heartwarming gathering of unity, solidarity and faith, the evening was a wonderful success – albeit a bit short for those of us who had to rush off to get the train home! The Big Iftar was later followed by a scriptural reasoning and all-night study session and subsequent Shacharit sunrise service, once again open for all to attend. Little did we know though that the success of the evening and the unity it portrayed were to become more important than ever. As we reflect on the heartbreaking terrorist attacks, merely a few days later, the evening is an inspirational reminder of the need to come together in harmony.

Thank you to Rabbi Helen, Julia, David and Neil plus Nic and all other staff and members of WSL for hosting such a wonderful evening and once again, welcoming the Muslim community with warm, open arms. May we continue to come together and may there be many more big iftars to come, God willing!

Salam, shalom, peace.

Elizabeth Arif-Fear

Co-Chair, Nisa-Nashim Marylebone

Credits and information:

Article feature for WLS Shavuot Review (2017)

Photography: West London Synagogue (featured image) (c), Elizabeth Arif-Fear (c)

Find out more about the Big Iftar campaign via their website and social media platforms (Facebook and Twitter).