A look at the past and some real, and possibly painful, talk about today — it’s all on the table at an upcoming symposium on Muslim-Jewish relations.
“We’re not going to censor,” said Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, chief program organizer at Lehrhaus Judaica, which is co-hosting the event with the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael.
The four-hour program, titled “A Golden Age in the Golden State? Muslims and Jews Creating a Culture of Understanding,” will combine academic knowledge and real-world activism for a two-pronged look at the issue.
The academic part of the day will start with a keynote talk by Fred Astren, chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, where he is also a faculty member in the Middle East and Islamic Studies department. Astren will discuss the so-called Islamic “Golden Age,” when Arab Muslims ruled over a pluralistic Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages.
Wolf-Prusan said many people view it as a perfect time when Jews and Muslims lived in harmony. “It’s a nostalgic delusion, because that never happened,” he said.
Also speaking will be Maha Elgenaidi, executive director of the Islamic Networks Group, a San Jose-based organization that aims to counter prejudice through education and community engagement. Elgenaidi, who has been involved with Bay Area interfaith work for 12 years, and is the founder of ING, thinks there are obvious parallels between the Muslims and Jews in today’s United States. “We are two of the largest religious minorities in the country,” she said.
The event will focus a bit on the “Faith Trio” in Oakland — a relationship among the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, Kehilla Community Synagogue and Montclair Presbyterian Church that been operating for more than a decade. Lea Delson of Kehilla, Ali Sheikholeslami of the ICC and pastor Ben Daniel of MPC will talk about what does and does not work in interfaith relations. There will also be a panel about ongoing interfaith efforts in Marin, moderated by Joanne Greene, director of Jewish engagement at the Osher Marin JCC.
The event also will include a break for food, music and even prayer — from both religions. “That’ll be kind of special,” Greene said.
All of this, Wolf-Prusan hopes, will take place in an environment where people will feel free to tackle difficult topics. But attendees also have to be prepared to hear hard truths from others. “We’re going to hit some areas of discomfort,” he said. “It’s just going to happen.”
Elgenaidi said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the elephant in the room in most Muslim-Jewish conversations. While it’s often not discussed in such settings, so the dialogue can keep going, she says that it has to be talked about. She added that both sides have to listen to their own diverse voices, and not exclude their own members for not toeing the line.
“You can’t possibly talk to the other side if you can’t even talk to people on your own side that have a different opinion,” she said.
She added that after the travel restrictions implemented as an executive order under President Donald Trump, the instant support that Muslims received from the Jewish community made a real impact in interfaith relations. And when Muslims raised money to fix desecrated Jewish cemeteries, that helped, too.
“All of that brought Muslims and Jews together organically,” she said.
The event is a continuation of programming that the Osher Marin JCC has been doing in interfaith Muslim-Jewish relationships for some time, including an interfaith Iftar, the Ramadan fast-breaking meal, an interfaith art exhibit, and a seminar about how American Jews and Muslims can figure out how to speak to each other about the Middle East.
Wolf-Prusan hopes that these events will continue at Lehrhaus Judaica, as well, as part of the Bay Area’s push to create a dialogue between religions.
“This is not a one-time event,” he said. “We’re going to do this again.”