Report by Walter Ruby, Muslim Jewish Program Director at FFEU
It was an unforgettable night of sharing moral teachings from Torah and Quran, and engaging in the joys of free-flowing human interaction—imams and rabbis and Jewish and Muslim laypeople–gathered in (of all places) a church basement in affluent Morristown, NJ together with a number of homeless folks and several Christians who have dedicated their lives to public service.
The New Jersey Muslims and Jews Standing Together Against Hunger and Homelessness event, held on the evening of December 5, consisted of volunteers from both faith communities serving food to homeless and hungry people at Our Place; a drop-in center for homeless people a in the basement of the First Baptist Church in Morristown headed by Zamir Hassan, the founder and director of Muslims Against Hunger (MAH), a New Jersey based anti-hunger organization, and Mary Kashmanian, a devout Christian. During this year’s Weekend of Twinning, MAH collaborated with FFEU in Muslims and Jews Feeding the Hungry events in cities across North America.
Indeed, the Morristown event was the last of 17 Feeding the Hungry events that FFEU sponsored—often in concert with MAH but also involving other groups like Masbiah (a Jewish anti-hunger group based in Brooklyn) and Unity Productions, a Washington based production company that makes films on the American Muslim community, and which produced an inspirational film trailer on the Muslim-Jewish Feeding the Hungry events.
This year’s Muslim-Jewish Feeding the Hungry events took place in Toronto, Boston, Buffalo, Binghamton, Long Island, Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Brunswick, Washington DC, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Los Angeles, and Morristown, as well as in Manchester, England. In each of those locations, Jews and Muslims visited soup kitchens, homeless shelters and street corners together to offer nourishing meals to people in need. In many cities, they also gathered for learning and networking sessions to discuss—and to celebrate–the common moral imperative in Judaism and Islam to feed the hungry and help those in society who are most in need.
Speaking at the Morristown event jointly hosted by Hassan of MAH and Walter Ruby, Muslim-Jewish Program Director at FFEU, were Rabbi Don Rossoff of Congregation B’nai Or in Morristown, Shaikh Adel Barhoma of the Islamic Center of Morris County in Rockaway, NJ, Rabbi Benjamin Adler of White Meadow Temple, also in Rockaway, Associate Rabbi Karen Perloman of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, Dr. Ali Chaudry of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, Imam Abdul Aleem Razak of the Masjid Ismail in Roselle, Mehdi Eliefifi of the New Jersey Outreach Group, a Muslim interfaith organization and Paul Freeland, head deacon of the First Baptist Church.
Rabbi Adler, who came to the Morristown event with a team of enthusiastic volunteers from White Meadow Temple, said that the sense of fellowship and shared commitment to helping those in need evoked for him the Hebrew concept ofhakarat hatov ( which means, literally, “recognizing the good” or gratitude. Adler said that after the anguish of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated much of New Jersey and ripped the roof off his synagogue, and the subsequent eruption of violence between Israel and Gaza, it was uplifting to witness Jews and Muslims in New Jersey coming together to feed the hungry.
Dr. Chaudry spoke of the hadith (Islamic oral law) which stipulates that “A man is not a believer who fills his stomach while his neighbor is hungry” and pointed out that the hadith precisely stipulates that the term ‘neighbor’ applies to quite a large number of people—including the forty houses in front a person’s home, the forty houses behind him, the forty houses on his right and the forty houses on his left. Imam Razak noted the Quran enjoins “believers” to help those most in need through acts like feeding the hungry or visiting the sick—noting that, “The Quaran does not say ‘Muslims’, nor ‘Jews’ but believers”. He then spoke about how inspired he was to see members of the two communities fulfilling that sacred obligation together.
At the end of the event, a homeless middle-aged man named Rick rose and thanked everyone at the event for “the great work you are doing,” but then said forcefully; “Don’t forget that after you leave here tonight, you will all be going home to your warm beds, but I will be sleeping outside on a cold night” (The wind chill was well below freezing). Rick quickly added, “Please don’t think I am putting you down in any way by saying that. It means more than you can imagine to me and other homeless people here that you are sitting side by side with us sharing a meal and relating to us with respect and dignity; something we rarely experience. But please never forget the suffering that people like me endure every day and night, something no one can really imagine until they experience it first-hand.”
Rick’s cri de coeur left many people in the room animated with the understanding that while they had done something of intrinsic worth that evening, that initial act of generosity would be rendered all but worthless if they were to simply congratulate each other and go home, without returning to volunteer on a regular basis at Our Place or other shelters or soup kitchens.
As Zamir Hassan explained, “Until shortly before I founded Muslims Against Hunger in 2000, I had been oblivious to the fact that ten percent of the population of New Jersey—half of them children—are classified as hungry. Once I became aware that there was so much hunger in my state—one of the wealthiest in the U.S, I knew I had to do something about it…I also came to understand that it is fitting that people of various backgrounds, including Muslims and Jews, should do this work together. After all, hunger has no religion.”