Minnesota Muslim-Jew alliances multiplying in new political climate

Published 9:12 pm Thursday, October 12, 2017

By Minneapolis Star Tribune

Rabbi Morris Allen celebrated the holiday of Sukkot last weekend at an unusual backyard gathering that hosted men wearing yarmulkes and Muslim women draped in headscarves.

A few weeks earlier, a new organization of Muslim and Jewish women delivered food shelf donations to a Minneapolis school. Another alliance, the Sisterhood of Shalaam Shalom, just launched a second Minnesota chapter in as many years.

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Minnesota, long a leader in interfaith action, is emerging as a national leader in Jewish-Muslim relations. Thanks to groundwork laid by religious leaders over the years, and jolted by heightened anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic tensions, leaders of the two faiths are forging new alliances and bolstering existing ones.

“I talk to colleagues across the country and there is a lot going on in Muslim-Jewish relations,” said Imam Makram El-Amin, whose Masjid An-Nur mosque shares a long partnership with Temple Israel. “But in terms of sheer volume of engagement, the Twin Cities is among the national leaders if not the leader. It’s so much so that we have to pick and choose what we can be engaged in.”

Minnesota reflects a trend unfolding in urban centers across the country, as well as the nation’s capital. For example, the American Jewish Committee and the Islamic Society of North America two of the nation’s largest such advocacy groups launched a new lobbying organization last November to promote hate crime legislation, civil rights legislation and other shared policy concerns.

In Minnesota, it’s difficult to miss the shifting winds. When two Jewish Community Centers in the Twin Cities received bomb threats this year, Muslim leaders placed a half-page newspaper advertisement stressing solidarity with the Jewish community. When a Muslim mosque in Bloomington was bombed in August, Jewish leaders were among those swiftly condemning the act at a news conference and solidarity event.

Setting aside differences

Relationships are swelling wider and deeper, from official synagogue-mosque partnerships and an imam-rabbi round table to joint legislative alliances, social gatherings and private friendships.

“I’ve never been to a Seder, and this year I was invited to two,” said Nausheena Hussain, executive director of Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment, which has worked on gun-control policies with the local National Council of Jewish Women.

Such alliances are setting aside differences over the Middle East to focus on common concerns such as civil rights violations, hate crimes and immigration.

“The environment has become so toxic, the visibility had to be heightened, too,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which for the first time will be partnering with the Jewish Community Relations Council at its next annual meeting.

During the past week, Jews celebrated the harvest holiday of Sukkot by building temporary huts in backyards that symbolize the makeshift dwellings of their ancestors during the exodus from Egypt.

This year, those dwellings were welcoming dozens of Muslim visitors, as synagogues and individuals invited Muslims to learn about the tradition.

Sharing the harvest holiday

At Adath Jeshurun, for example, Muslim families from the Northwest Islamic Community Center joined the congregation Sunday afternoon under a large tent decked with dried cornstalks and leaves. They listened as Rabbi Harold Kravitz explained the tents symbolism and the tradition of inviting guests to share this holiday.

As children scurried around an inflatable bouncy house, the adults chatted inside about common foods, travel, religious traditions. Everyone headed inside later for a buffet that ranged from salads to samosas.

Syeda Tarannumof the Islamic Center was among the guests and organizers. Sitting at a dinner table with Jewish hosts, she said invitations to speak at both synagogues and churches have climbed.

“It’s not just a theological dialogue anymore,” Tarannum said, referring to the early Muslim-Jewish ties. It’s a personal dialogue. “It’s about how you help your next-door neighbor.”

In fact, the gathering was part of a new project called Love Your Neighbor that will continue to hold joint social gatherings. Fay Kaye, an Adath member, shared a dinner table with a Syrian woman who has become a friend through the project.

“There’s a lot of hate these days,” Kaye said, “and it’s usually based on lack of understanding and knowledge.”

To be sure, not all Muslims and Jews are thrilled with these developments. The folks involved tend to be relatively well educated, assimilated, and not part of a religious extreme.

Imam Abdisalam Adam, of Minneapolis Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, recalled an initial pushback to his interfaith work.

“Some Somalis had a learning curve,” he said, “learning that this wasn’t compromising your faith. That it was for the common good.”

States progressive traditions

The learning curve continues even for leaders such as Adam. He recently was invited to help a Jewish colleague build a sukkah hut in her backyard. He marveled, “I never heard of the word sukkah before then.”

“There are clearly areas where we tread lightly,” added Rabbi Allen, of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights. “I’m sure if I spent time on the Facebook pages of some people who have come to the synagogue, wed have substantive differences. But the beauty of America is you find areas of agreement.”

Religious leaders credit Minnesota’s progressive traditions, and its history of interfaith dialogue for building a strong foundation for alliances today.

“All of this is built on many years of personal relationships,” said Imam Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, one of the founders of the rabbi-imam roundtable that meets quarterly.

The deepening ties in the Twin Cities have caught the attention of Jews and Muslims elsewhere in the state. El-Amin, for example, was recently invited to the Iron Range to share insights.

Said Kravitz: “I think there is a sense of a great need to understand each other.”