The founder of the San Jose-based Islamic Networks Group and the member of a prominent Bay Area Jewish family have something in common: Both believe in the value of studying the texts and traditions of faiths other than their own.
Maha Elgenaidi, founder and executive director of ING, is not only the author of multiple lectures and handbooks on Islam, but also has studied Torah more deeply than most American Jews.
Dr. Patricia Hellman Gibbs, daughter of Warren Hellman and great-great-granddaughter of Isaias Hellman, put her medical career on hold after the 9/11 attacks in order to pursue theological studies — in large part to learn about Islam.
Both were featured speakers at a “A Golden Age in a Golden State? Muslims and Jews Creating a Culture of Understanding,” a public symposium held Nov. 5 at the Osher Marin JCC.
Along with a diverse panel of scholars, community activists and religious leaders from around the region, Elgenaidi and Gibbs each pressed the point that we can — and must — build relationships of trust with people of other faiths in order to work through the issues that result in conflict.
In fact, they are already doing it.
Elgenaidi, whose nonprofit works to pursue interfaith engagement and counter bigotry, pointed to the numerous solidarity events between Jews and Muslims that have taken place over the past decade in the Bay Area.
“Both communities are showing admirable dedication and courage in standing up for one another, in the best American tradition of respect for religious freedom and pluralism,” she said.
“I have never seen … a better time than today to forge these relations in the face of the bigotry that both our communities confront,” she continued. “Charlottesville was emblematic of what Jews confront in anti-Semitism, and the narratives about Muslims in the presidential elections were emblematic of what Muslims confront in Islamophobia.”
Hellman’s immersion in theological studies, in which she also dug deeper into her own Jewish traditions, led her to write the 2011 novel “A New Song” (under the pen name Sarah Isaias). It’s about a Muslim poet and Jewish doctor together exploring the origins of Abrahamic traditions.
Gibbs said that one thing she has learned is that cultures and societies are informed and motivated by narratives — whether they are true, false or conflicting.
“The way to remedy conflicting stories is the creation of a counter-narrative, an overarching narrative that embraces all the stories of all the different peoples in a common vision,” she said, adding that she hopes her novel (and a 2016 full-length feature film, “The Rendezvous,” which she wrote and helped produce, and is based on her book) can help lead the way.
The title of the symposium was a reference to the long period of history known as the Golden Age in Spain. From the eighth century until the Catholic “reconquest” in the 15th century, a Muslim regime dominated the Iberian Peninsula while showing relative tolerance toward the kingdom’s Christians and Jews. Although this “golden” period is an academic hypothesis, the idea of “La Convivencia” endures as a working example of interfaith coexistence.
“American Jews like this story, because we still have his dream of integration,” said professor Fred Astren, chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University.
Astren kicked off the four-hour Sunday afternoon event, co-hosted by Lehrhaus Judaica and the Marin JCC, with a condensed recap of Muslim-Jewish relations in the Golden Age. “We don’t need to aspire to a golden, mythical past,” he admonished. “We need to look to the future, based in the here and now.”
Like other interfaith events between and among Jewish, Muslim and Christian groups around the Bay Area, the Osher Marin JCC has for the past several years joined with nearby Islamic centers to build substantive relationships, said Joanne Greene, director of Jewish engagement at the Marin JCC.
“Both communities have supported one another when we’ve been threatened,” said Greene. “But having one another’s backs is not something that happens automatically. It’s the result of years of working together, learning about one another and making the necessary efforts to reach across the aisle.
“In a year when Nazis marched in Charlottesville, and our administration moved to restrict travel to the U.S. from predominantly Muslim countries, it is ever more critical that we stand together for the values that both Judaism and Islam teach.”
Greene acknowledged that there might be differences of opinion among the group, but urged the 130 or so attendees to keep their hearts and minds open to other viewpoints and to focus on the goal of gaining better understanding.
This was a point picked up by Elgenaidi in a sober speech about the need for the respective communities to confront prejudices within their own ranks and divergent narratives about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While Muslim and Jewish communities across the U.S. have drawn closer, she said, they have done so at the cost of avoiding the more difficult questions of how they each view the conflict. Then again, different viewpoints on the conflict exist within each of the two communities, so answers are never easy.
And because more moderate members of both communities have tended to set that issue aside, or “tamp down” discussion of it, she added, “we’ve inadvertently let so-called extremists on both sides take over the narrative. And these extremists have a lot of influence on the rest of the Muslim and Jewish communities.”
Elgenaidi’s words struck a chord with Rabbi Burt Jacobson, founding rabbi of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, who attended the event.
“We founded Kehilla 33 years ago because you couldn’t find a synagogue where you were allowed to talk openly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said. “Now there are many more of us who hold this belief that, as Americans, we have to help resolve the Israel-Palestine issue. But I am still unsure about how to reach the hardline Zionists; we are here in one community, and they are in theirs.”
Though uncertainty over such issues reigns, Rabbi Jeremy Morrison, the new executive director of Lehrhaus Judaica, said that at least the symposium was a start.
“I’m very impressed,” he said, “by what’s happening in this room — that 150 or so people will come out and spend an entire Sunday afternoon to focus on this issue.”
Other speakers and panelists at the symposium included Hebrew Union College professor Reuven Firestone; Sister Amal Crespo of the North Marin Islamic Center; Pastor Ben Daniel of Montclair Presbyterian Church; Lea Delson of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont; Ali Sheikholeslami from the Islamic Cultural Center in Oakland; and Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan of Lehrhaus.