Jews break the fast — for Ramadan — with local Muslims at Shaare Emeth

Harvey Schneider, a past president of Shaare Emeth and Interfaith Partnership, greets Imam Muhammed Hasic during an Iftar meal breaking Muslims’ daily fast during Ramadan. 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

As Leiba Levine settled in for a tasty dinner she was struck by just how much she had in common with her tablemates, a group of Islamic visitors to Congregation Shaare Emeth.

“We’re more obviously alike than we are different,” said Levine, a congregation member and teacher at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School who found education was a topic of great interest to both her and her Muslim counterparts. “The blessing talking about how we are all under the same sun and the same moon and now we’ll share the same table I thought was really moving.”

The Muslim guests, mostly from St. Louis’ Turkish community, were at the temple for Iftar, the breaking of the day’s fast at sunset during Ramadan, as part of a program by the Niagara Foundation, a Chicago-based group that promotes global fellowship.

About two dozen individuals from each faith group attended the ceremonial meal which included chicken, rice, potatoes and stuffed grape leaves. Shaare Emeth’s contingent consisted mostly of staff, board members and officers.

Ali Durhan, executive director of the Missouri branch of Niagara, said the gathering was designed as an educational experience for both communities.

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“We even set the tables accordingly so that people from different traditions can learn about each other,” he said. “They can learn about fasting in their tradition. During dinner, they will find out that we have a lot of commonalities rather than just differences.”

Durhan said questions were encouraged and he hoped people would take the opportunity to break stereotypes and form friendships.

“The main idea is that we would really like people to create a direct connection. We do not want them to only rely on what they see on TV, read in articles, what they get from books,” he said. “We want them to start direct conversations and talk to people face-to-face to see how they smile, what kinds of things they are laughing at, things like that.”

Durhan said that Niagara does a number of interfaith and intercultural events and even sponsors trips to his native Turkey for political, business and civic lead ers. The group will take part in an event with the local Archdiocese in October, expected to bring together more than 200 people.

Niagara also does “family dinner circles,” Ramadan-based events where about 30 people from diverse backgrounds are hosted at local Islamic homes. It’s an experience he said is even more intense than group gatherings such as this.

“When you go to a typical Turkish or Muslim home they will see how we interact with family members, how we design our furniture, what kind of TV we watch,” he said. “They will see that we are also fans of the Cardinals.”

Harvey Schneider, a former president of Shaare Emeth, has travelled to Turkey himself and said he found the nation friendly and welcoming. He was happy his congregation could be a part of the event.

“We’re just delighted that we can host this Iftar,” he said. “I know it has been done in other cities but I think this may be a first for St. Louis.”

He believes events like this create strong interpersonal bonds.

“It’s easy to draw conclusions about people when you’ve never met them and maybe have only heard things about them but when you have a face to face encounter, it changes things rather dramatically,” he said.

Asli Akkaya agreed, saying that face-to-face contact promotes information exchange and mutual understanding. As a volunteer for the Niagara Foundation and a board member of the Turkish American Society of Missouri, she’s no stranger to get togethers like this one.

“When I first came [to the United States] it felt like there were strangers around me but after attending these kinds of events, you get to know people and they get to know you and you start to make friends,” she said.

Akkaya said that at gatherings such as this she is often asked about the head scarf she wears but it is a question she doesn’t mind answering.

“I feel good because it is about teaching and learning,” she said.

Joe Pereles, congregation president, said he truly wanted to get into the spirit of the proceedings so he didn’t eat beforehand.

“The folks who are here today have fasted all day as well and I just wanted to experience what they have gone through and break the fast with them,” he said.

Rabbi James Bennett pointed out that Pereles’ action wasn’t as unique as it might seem. In fact, the Iftar was taking place on the final day of the Jewish month of Av and many traditional Jews do fast at the end of each month. It is just another commonality, he said.

“The idea of sitting down and breaking bread together literally and saying prayers of gratitude to a common God, we realize there is a great deal more that unites us than separates us,” he said.

Muhamed Hasic, the imam co-presiding over the event with Bennett, noted the importance of the fast to Muslims, saying that it brings home the reality that the needy face every day. Hasic said that food collection drives in the Muslim community collect as much as three times as much during fasting as at other times.

“I can explain to you how it is to be hungry but until you are hungry, I don’t think you can understand,” he said.

Schneider said that our multicultural society presents a valuable chance for people of all faiths to understand one another.

“One thing about the United States, unlike other countries, every religion is a minority religion,” he said. “There is no state religion like there is in some other countries so it is very important for us to get to know our neighbors, the people who live down the street and get to know what they hold near and dear.”

Meanwhile, as she surveys the fellowship in the room, Levine is looking forward to her own upcoming experience with Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

 “I will take this into my holiday for sure,” she said.

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