November 24, 2013
By Keith Sargeant
NEW BRUNSWICK — If the idea of dozens of Jews and Muslims uniting as part of an initiative twinning mosques and synagogues sounds too good to be true, consider this:
The fight against hunger has no religion.
“There’s always going to be apprehension,” said Will Eastman, executive director of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, who was among 60 people from both religious communities taking part in a twinning event centered around delivering food for the homeless. “We’re not about singing, ‘Kumbaya,’ and let’s get together and love each other. We try to focus on substantive things so the connection is more genuine.”
It’s why Eastman considered the Nov. 3 “Standing Up for the Other” twinning event at the Masjid-e-Ali mosque in the Somerset section of Franklin a success on many levels.
Volunteers from the Muslim Day school, Rutgers Hillel, the Rutgers Jewish Xperience, Muslims Against Hunger, the Islamic Center of Basking Ridge and community leaders such as Franklin Township Mayor Brian Levine united to distribute more than 350 meals to the homeless in New Brunswick, Newark, Jersey City and Morristown.
“The Jewish tradition values being able to feed the hungry,” said Rabbi Esther Reed, senior associate director for Jewish Campus Life at Rutgers Hillel. “That really was the essence of the program. It was bringing people together so that we could prepare food for those who are hungry. So there’s no question that this was an important thing to do.”
Working with respect
A Rutgers graduate, who previously served as president of Shalom/Salaam, an interfaith student group at the university, Eastman said leaders from both sects try to deal with preconceived notions “in a respectful way.”
“We’re not going to tell people, ‘whatever you think is wrong,’ we’re going to try to show them that there really is a historical alliance between these two communities and when people do see that they’ll say maybe that does make sense,” he said. “The large amount of apprehension deals with the Arab-Israeli political conflicts, which isn’t really the focus of our program. This is more of the religious and community-service aspects of our two faiths. We know there are differing political opinions, but as we all know at your Thanksgiving dinner your uncle and aunt may disagree on who was a better president, Clinton or Bush? That’s part of being a family.”
Added Rabbi Reed: “I think there’s a perception that if you’re Jewish then automatically you don’t get along with Muslims or if you’re Muslim you don’t get along with Jews. I think that’s a misnomer, and fortunately Rutgers Hillel has had a long tradition of doing joint community-service projects with Muslims and we’re happy to be involved in these types of events.”
Zamir Hassan, founder of Muslims Against Hunger, helped organize the event, and Eastman credited Saif Naqvi, a 17-year old senior at The Pennington School of doing “a great job of engaging our Jewish community and the leaders of the mosque.”
Founded in 2000 as a volunteer-run grassroots effort to educate the Muslim community about the problems of hunger, poverty and homelessness, Muslims Against Hunger has distributed meals to the homeless and working poor in more than 20 cities across the country since its inception.
“It’s kind of evolved into an interfaith activity,” Hassan said. “Sometimes the best interfaith dialogue is when there’s no talking, with people actually doing stuff together and (rallying) behind a common cause of helping people and then we learn we’re not so different after all. So what we do is engage all kinds of communities into doing good work around the hunger and poverty issue.
“Hunger has no religion, and there are no disputes in any community about it,” Hassan added. “So we use that as a tool to bring people together.”
The twinning event served as the North American launch of a global initiative that will unite mosques and synagogues on six continents. As it turned out, the food drive had a dual purpose as the Jewish and Muslim communities discussed efforts to combat prejudice, according to Walter Ruby, the Muslim-Jewish programs director for the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
“Going to go forward with the ‘Standing Up for the Other’ theme, the plan is to form a permanent Central Jersey Muslim Jewish Solidarity Committee, with the idea being if there is a hate crime against either community the other will sway into action for support,” Ruby said.
Eastman admitted the idea of blending the Jewish and Muslim cultures for a twinning event “may seem a little strange,’’ but said “when you really think about it these two faiths have a tremendous amount in commonality.’’
“The president of our organization likes to say, ‘We have a common faith and a common fate,’ ” Eastman said. “Here are Muslims and Jews who some think don’t have a lot in common but it turns out we’re learning more about each other and we’re feeding the homeless in the process.”